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Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Whether dealing with thieves or revolutionaries, prostitutes or drug traffickers, auteur Steven Soderbergh has analyzed his subjects in a manner befitting his personality: distressingly closely and with boundless curiosity. He’s a man clearly interested in cultural institutions, though he’s not one to recklessly glamorize or demonize them. Contagion, Soderbergh’s newest film, is his best in years for just that reason—it’s an examination of governmental and societal bureaucracies under enormous pressure, but it’s performed with a germophobe’s discomfort, a bookworm’s data vomit, and a master storyteller’s intimacy.

The film stars Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff, a loving father of two whose cheating, globe-hopping wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) appears to have been the inadvertent patient zero of a viral strand that kills, and spreads, very quickly. When Paltrow seizes on their kitchen floor, things happen in a whir of confusion and denial. His wife and son are dead, he’s told, though he and his daughter appear to be immune to the unknown disease.

Other patches of similar fatalities pop up gradually all over the globe, drawing in a bevy of players, including a butt-covering Center for Disease Control operative (Laurence Fishburne), a blogging “truther” (Jude Law), a ground-level doctor (Kate Winslet), an abducted World Health Organization official (Marion Cotillard), a Nobel Prize-winning epidemiologist (Jennifer Ehle), and countless others who must juggle information gathering with vaccine testing, Homeland Security meddling, rising body counts, and mass panic all at once.

Most surprising, and welcome, is just how long it takes for everything to unfold. Soderbergh is committed to showing the long, excruciating buildup; even with epidemic fears, dwindling resources, and no real answers, the American public is so large, so sedentary, that hysteria takes a good while to work up to. We see the semi-calming talking-head cable interviews by “officials,” the makeshift signs assuring folks that homeopathic remedies are available, the collective politeness of single-file lines. Eventually, those break down, though always in unexpected, sudden, and violent ways.

This is no event thriller or disaster movie. It’s a meticulous doomsday scenario imagined by someone with a seeming need to visualize the worst as a salve to his anxiety. In that sense, Contagion crackles with visceral immediacy and smart narrative thrust. One can’t help but wonder, however, if Soderbergh’s almost perverse stacking of the cast with recognizable movie stars or cherished character actors in nearly every speaking part is part of his self-comforting. Whatever the case, it’s a distracting flaw.

That’s not true, however, of Damon, whose onscreen presence never feels like Hollywood largesse. Rather, the actor seems to only get more natural, inviting, and Everyman with each role. Here, he exudes fatherly protection, albeit with a henpecked vulnerability. In the film’s bizarro world, where the world’s fate rests on the shoulders of red-carpet royalty, Damon takes seriously his responsibility as the audience proxy, and it’s much appreciated.

Part of that credit should go to Soderbergh, who has spent the last decade looking at Damon through his viewfinder, and also to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!), who seems to have a lock on the actor’s subtle mannerisms. And in a film that calls so much attention to the number of times someone touches his face or clears her throat—an effect that makes a packed theater feel like a Petri dish—that’s no small feat.

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