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CONTAGION (2011) (***1/2)

This film is a germaphobe's worst nightmare. You'll finish watching this movie and want to wash your hands. There have been other disease outbreak films before, but none have been this realistic, which of course makes it more frightening.

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This film is a germaphobe's worst nightmare. You'll finish watching this movie and want to wash your hands. There have been other disease outbreak films before, but none have been this realistic, which of course makes it more frightening.

Beth Emoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE) comes back from a business trip in China and she's sick. At first she thinks it's just the flu, but before she knows it she's having convulsions and her husband Mitch (Matt Damon, GOOD WILL HUNTING) is taking her to the hospital. The disease spreads fast and within a month Mitch and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) are virtual prisoners in their home as Minnesota becomes like a scene out of a zombie flick.

Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne, BOYZ IN THE HOOD) is heading up the CDC investigation into the new disease. As Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, THE KING'S SPEECH) discovers, the bug is mutating faster than they can find out what it is. Cheever sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet, THE READER) to Minnesota where the disease originated in the States. She's on the front lines of the battle against local interests and the public health. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard, INCEPTION) to Hong Kong to find the source. She'll discover what Chinese officials are willing do to protect their people and image.

One of the more interesting characters is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY), an alternative medicine / big pharma conspiracy blogger. But as Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould, M*A*S*H) says, a blog is just graffiti with punctuation. Krumwiede was the first to break the news of a Japanese man dying on a bus. As the disease spreads, he becomes a prophet to many in the anti-establishment world, much like Jenny McCarthy became the face of the anti-vaccine craze. On his vlog he films himself taking a natural cure when he gets sick, claiming the CDC is hiding the truth about the source and cure of the disease.

Director Steven Soderbergh, working from a script by Scott Z. Burns (THE INFORMANT!), crafts a captivating hyperlink film where the event becomes the main character more than the people. That said he still brings in humanity. Damon's Mitch shows first hand the human toll, losing loved ones, while trying to keep it together in order to keep his daughter safe. Living in the epicenter of the disease is a harrowing ordeal when supplies become short and basic law starts to break down. Cheever has a moral dilemma when he learns certain top-secret information. Does he share it with his loved ones or stay true to his post? We meet many of the brave people trying to save lives and truly respect their sacrifices.

This isn't a performance film, but a presence film. The big names in small roles add weight to every aspect. Two performances stuck out though. Law is snarky as the determined blogger. He believes strongly in everything he's peddling, but is he doing more harm than good? The other performance comes from Ehle, who plays the lead scientist looking to develop a vaccine. You've probably seen hundreds of actors spout out technical jargon in films and on TV, but she makes us believe every word she is saying. You never get the impression she is just trying to speed through it. Her enthusiasm and authority gives her role a quiet heroism. I also don't want to miss mentioning John Hawkes (WINTER'S BONE) as a janitor that works at the CDC, Demetri Martin (TAKING WOODSTOCK) as Dr. Hextall's partner and Bryan Cranston (TV's BREAKING BAD) as the military liaison Cheever must report to.

This isn't an alarmist thriller where scientists have to hijack helicopter in order to save loved ones. In a world where pseudo-science is rampant, this is a light in the dark. A champion for science and those that believe in it. The film makes you wonder if de-funding the CDC is more dangerous than de-funding the Pentagon. Disease kills more people worldwide than terrorism.

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Rick DeMott
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