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Cinema Signal: For the filmgoer who can deal with the wide consequences of an unrestrained virus pandemic.
. "Contagion"

The film world needed a fresh epidemic thriller and director Steven Soderbergh ("Ocean's Thirteen") and screenwriter (Scott Z. Burns, "The Bourne Ultimatum") have seen to it. With a sterling cast, it's a lesson in how to make a major movie event out of a highly transmittable bug.

To those affected, it begins with a cough. Its effects are so rapid that the victim can barely make it to the hospital before the shakes and the finality of a seizure ends it all. The worst part is that even if you worked at the hospital, contracting it means death. No one knows what it is, where it comes from, how to treat it or how to make a vaccine.

Telling the story in such a galvanizing way isn't just a matter of showing our helplessness in controlling its swift spread, though time is part of the fear-inducing lesson. Soderbergh gets you deeper into what his composite of terror could mean to us by following specific characters. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, "Iron Man") returning to Chicago from a trip on business in Hong Kong may be the first to contract it and develop the telltale cough and blurred vision.

Soon, the cases here and abroad bring the issue into the lap of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), its high security labs, and Deputy Director Dr. Ellis Cheever (the always authoritative Laurence Fishburne, "21"). It's they who are charged with protecting, informing and setting policy for the public on health issues. Cheever's mission is to set into motion the experts and mechanisms for learning how the disease is transmitted, how it develops with an immunity to the body's defenses, and how to stop it.

Figuring into this quest in a major way, while cases grow exponentially, is Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, "The Adjustment Bureau"), Cheever's cool and competent animal researcher whose area of expertise holds the greatest promise of developing a vaccine. Cheever's second appointment goes to Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet, "The Reader"), a virus/pandemic expert who takes samples and advises business people and politicians with calm rationality in the face of rising panic. Truth to power, when necessary with combative cynics. And, then, another tragedy. She contracts the infection.

Equally dedicated is her French counterpart, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard, "Inception") who, as a forensic pathologist, studies Emhoff's travels with the help of security camera footage in public places looking for the contacts that led to her contagion. Defining the vector of the virus grows more critical by the day (which are indicted in subtitles throughout the ordeal).

Most indicative of the virus's effects on the personal lives of its victims, and therefore most emotionally moving, is the Beth Emhoff part of the story. In an opening sequence, we see her in closeup at an airport, talking by phone to a man in Chicago with whom she had just slept during a 10-hour layover. Her cough and skin pallor tell us she's seriously sick and possibly the first victim of the killer microbe.

Mitch (Matt Damon, "True Grit"), her husband, would probably never have known about her indiscretion. But she's become a very important subject of investigation by the CDC who are tracing her every movement and come to him for his interpretation of them. Now, left with his loss and that cold revelation, his concern is to protect himself (though he's immune to the virus) and his daughter from a world growing more panicked and dangerous by the day. He's an everyman for whom we feel compassion, not a big hero. As such, he and Beth are the emotional heart of the film.

The vivid portrayal of a pandemic across all boundaries in the world maintains the suspense of saving humanity under the stress of an unstoppable organism. Will the essential vaccine be found before more people die? On that question we're given a course on how that's done and why it takes so long.

Then, there are the mercenary cuckoos who see a way to profit by it. Enter anti-establishment, conspiracy theorist and blogging guru Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, "Sherlock Holmes"), who has been a monkey wrench in the CDC's gears and in Cheever's moral issues. To Krumwiede, it's all about selling an existing pop medicine. But even as supplies of his "cure" run out, panic and looting begins to disrupt the social order. This is horror on the largest scale possible.

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My memory tells me that this is the most gut-grabbing non-zombie pandemic thriller I've seen ("Pandemic," "Plague," "Outbreak," etc.), and that's aside from feeling a tickling sensation in the back of my throat for at least the first two acts. Of course, the brilliant cast accounts for part of that; and writer Scott Z. Burns' script and dialogue for another essential part. But I suspect that it's Soderbergh's construction and instinct for playing out so much dry (but relevant) information within the pockets of rising suspense that nails it. He makes it an experience, and one that doesn't pander to lowbrow demands.

This is for an audience with the ability to imagine the reality being formulated on the screen; its possibility and its terrifying consequences. There is a calm about the film, which is characterized by Winslet's cool recitation of the data. Here's the truth; I won't put it on steroids, I won't exaggerate, I won't pump you up with volume and speed. Just the facts. Yes, there's a product placement here and there. This is a film landscape after all. And it's just as intelligent as it needs to be. Dramatic entertainment follows.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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