“Contagion” is the name of the film because it’s also the name of the most developed character. That might seem unfair to the other characters, but such is the nature of the disaster-movie beast. Individual screen time is limited for reasons of general inclusiveness. And also because, the disaster in question being a highly lethal and highly communicable virus, other characters tend to die off anyway. Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet play their parts, respectively an epidemiologist, a paragon of endurance, a CDC boss, a blogger-alarmist, a first casualty, and a damage controller. But contagion — that is, both the deadly disease and the spreading thereof — is the proper star of “Contagion.”
Rest assured: This also being a Steven Soderbergh film, sudden deadness is no reason for a person to disappear. The Soderbergh touch often includes tinkering with narrative cause and effect by running time backwards or in little mobius loops (often to the tune of slick, propulsive music by Cliff Martinez). One senses the director here relishing the challenge of a film for which unidirectional plot progress is the essence of the concept. Screen titles keep us abreast of the outbreak chronology, but in a typically Soderberghian coup de grace, we don’t see day one until the end.
Those little switchbacks even slip into the dialogue, as expressions of shock and grief. In one memorable moment, Damon’s character gets some bad news from a doctor and just presses right on with perfunctory questions before the news has sunk in. The screenwriter is Scott Z. Burns, who also saw Damon through “The Bourne Ultimatum” and Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” Burns too seems keen on a challenge here — namely, the reconciliation of less-is-more storytelling with one of those stories in which half the characters only exist to explain things and the other half to need things explained.
In “Contagion,” that tension might be allegorically useful: The theme has to do with the modern perils of accelerated exposure — to disease, to information, to diseased information. It’s meant to be telling, amid the vortex of disembodied newscaster narration and texted emoticons, that “social distancing” is suggested as a containment strategy. Some good that’ll do.
Anyway, just more food for thought while we’re also commemorating terrorism and various cataclysmic natural and financial disasters. Fortunately, hysteria — be it paranoia of germ pandemics or of soul-eating solipsism — isn’t Soderbergh’s style. He’d rather stay chicly aloof.
In truth, we should have seen this coming. In all of Soderbergh’s four-and-a-half-hour biopic “Che,” arguably the most dramatic moments involved a guy having asthma. “Contagion”’s most developed character, though omnipresent, also is a tad coy. It requires several spokespeople. The best is a researcher played by Jennifer Ehle, no stranger to thankless movie roles, and here a revelation for her sort of Streepian dignity, a textured softness that makes every procedure-narrating thing she says seem worth paying attention to.
Other context keepers, including John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston and Elliott Gould, hover at the periphery. Maybe it’s safest there.