Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns transform the infectious disease thriller from overwrought melodrama (see 1995’s OUTBREAK as an egregious example) into a tense kaleidoscope of the global society’s reaction to a pandemic, focusing primarily on the CDC’s efforts to find and implement a vaccine and the emotional fallout in patient zero’s immediate family. Shortly before Thanksgiving Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a Hong Kong business trip via Chicago (and a brief affair with an old flame) to husband Mitch (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis, while carrying a deadly virus along with her baggage. After Beth collapses in seizures, dying shortly thereafter, head of CDC Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) sends colleague Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to the scene to contain the virus’ spread. But people start dropping in Hong Kong, Chicago and across the northern hemisphere at an alarming rate, and panic soon begins to spread, thanks in no small part to paranoid, muckraking blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). While WHO agent Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) searches for the pandemic’s source in Hong Kong and CDC’s Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) works tirelessly on a vaccine, the military and the Department of Homeland Security entertain the notion that this may be a terrorist attack. In contrast to the film’s large scale, both in geography and character, Burns’ script remains economical and controlled. Soderbergh mutes the hysterics throughout, finding small, quiet moments that hit hard despite (perhaps because of) this restraint. His frequent collaborator, editor Stephen Mirrione, maintains a relentless pace but never sacrifices speed for clarity. The assembled all-star cast is a true ensemble and hit their physical and emotional marks with precision, but Winslet, Damon, Fishburne and Ehle are standouts. Soderbergh has been categorized, sometimes justifiably, as a cool, detached filmmaker. But here his objective tone works, and the film insidiously gets under the skin. Those hoping for a hyperbolic entertainment may be disappointed, but the rest of us will likely be washing our hands obsessively for days afterward.