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For Your Consideration: 'Contagion'

From Boccaccio's Decameron to any number of cinematic thrillers, we love to worry about what it would be like to live through a plague. Recent history's deadly bugs, from smallpox to AIDS to Ebola, are natural targets for our anxiety, but history has shown that it may be influenza that gets us. This is the premise of Steven Soderbergh's latest film, Contagion, and it is so effective precisely because it has what the best films on this subject so far had -- 1971's The Andromeda Strain is my favorite in the genre -- but also because Soderbergh treats his story in disturbingly clinical fashion, even as the death toll mounts into the millions. Although Contagion is no longer in first run, it was actually more frightening to watch this movie over the Thanksgiving weekend, because that is when the flu outbreak occurs in Contagion, with the devastating disease mounting in numbers killed through Christmas. It did not help that members of my family were coming down with the inevitable cold symptoms of this time of year.

The screenplay has been whittled down to a taut 106 minutes by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum), leaving little room for much personal emotion from a sprawling cast of characters, and Soderburgh has bleached most of the color from the screen, leaving the harsh white light of the ER or examining table. A chilling score of impersonal, synthesized music by Cliff Martinez, a regular collaborator of Soderburgh's, rounds out the picture of something that is happening outside of human concerns. Anyone looking for gripping drama as the human race heroically confronts the deadly pestilence is going to be disappointed: no race against the clock, no pithy one-liners, no pulse-racing music. It is typical of this film that the horror of the illness caused by the deadly flu virus is communicated by a minute or so of terrifying paroxysms it causes in the bodies of two actors, Gwyneth Paltrow, as the Patient Zero who comes back to Minneapolis from a trip to Hong Kong infected, and her character's young son (Griffin Kane).

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The scope of the film, however, goes far beyond any one individual, such as Paltrow's slightly hapless husband (Matt Damon), who manages to survive and puts all of his effort into protecting his daughter (a pleasing Anna Jacoby-Heron) from meeting the same fate. In almost documentary style, as if to make a case for the importance of vaccination, the camera sweeps around the world, taking in a community in China and an official with the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard), a lead doctor at the Centers for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne), a CDC worker in the field (Kate Winslet), and a rogue blogger (Jude Law) who complicates the scientific response to the outbreak with dubious information. Soderbergh and Burns marshal all of these stories with admirable concision and clarity, tagging the various locations with grimly efficient subtitles.

The most moving part of Boccaccio's Decameron is not the many charming, smutty stories told by the brigata, indulging in escapism in their villas outside Florence, but the shocking personal account of what Florence was like in 1348, when the bubonic plague killed half of the people, or more by some reckonings, who lived there. Boccaccio, who lost his father, his step-mother, and many other people in his life to the plague, describes more or less exactly what happens in the film to American cities: public order disintegrates as lawlessness goes unchecked, citizens run after false cures in panic, and the dead go unburied. The worst, most selfish parts of human nature are on display. The only difference is that we in the 21st-century world have at least some hope that a medical cure will be found. In Contagion, that hope is centered on pragmatic scientists, played by the no-nonsense Jennifer Ehle and a rather goofy Demetri Martin, and the film will hopefully make the American electorate think twice about the ramifications of certain cuts to the federal budget.

This movie is still being shown at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, including on a $1 special tonight.

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