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Contagion is a cerebral disaster movie

On the weekend we marked the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a movie about different kind of global threat was number one at the box office.

Kate Winslett, playing a doctor, does her best to corral a deadly and fast-moving virus. She’s just one of the many-Oscared actors that make up Contagion’s star-studded cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Marion Cottillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston, and Elliot Gould. But none of them is THE star of the film. The real star is the disease, or more precisely, the response to the disease, which is a kind of bird flu/swine flu combo.

Instead of being a character study about the emotional toll on individuals, Contagion is more of a systems analysis. It’s about crisis management; how do we respond collectively to an outbreak. If this sounds dry as dust, it’s not. In Steven Soderberg’s hands, it’s a fast-paced and fascinating thriller.

And it’s not that the film doesn’t recognize the emotional side of the disease, Soderberg’s actors do their best to indicate the human costs of the illness, it’s just that the movie doesn’t have time to mourn. It’s got a whole planet to cover: from doctors on the front line to the epidemiologists in the lab, from the policy-makers at the World Health Organization and the CDC to the government bureaucrats, from the politicians to the military and homeland security officials, and from the media to social media.

The lack of an emotional register makes the film seem a bit detached and clinical, but what it sacrifices in depth, it makes up for in scope. And besides, it does serve at least one practical social good: everyone leaving the theatre is apt to wash his or her hands a lot more often.

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