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What Happened to Contagion?

What Happened to Contagion?

It’s completely disappeared from any awards conversation, including, incredibly, best screenplay and direction.

When I saw it, I thought it was the second great movie of the decade. At least “The Social Network” was a real contender up to the wire. I was certain that “Contagion” would be the same.

Remember, this is not a deliberately slow and narratively challenging film like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Quite the opposite – what makes “Contagion” so stunning is that Scott Z. Burns and Steven Soderbergh take a scientific subject and treat it as a thriller. The only other films I can think of that managed to pull this off were “Lorenzo’s Oil” and (perhaps) “Panic in the Streets.”

What’s more, the interweaving stories are far more effective than those of “Traffic,” which always betrayed its mini-series roots.

Nor is it a cold film (which is probably what keeps “Margin Call” from contention). The performances are very strong, provoking real emotional responsiveness. (I can’t tell you how many people shared my reaction of being utterly petrified by their first post-viewing sneeze.)

And – usually a help for Oscar contention – it’s about a pressing issue of the day: there may never have been a movie that so well defines what government and only government can do. There is plenty of individual heroism in this film, but without national coordination, the plague could never be contained.

Burns should get a lot of credit for this since his script doesn’t have a single preachy sentence in it. Every idea is purely dramatized. This script should be at the top of the WGA list. (I’m a voting member.)

Is “Contagion” too smart for the movies?

This is a terrifying thought. We seem to have accepted that character drama now plays only on TV (and in indies destined for streaming). Have we done the same with smart?

Is this the difference a single year makes? Sure, the Academy went for sentimental over smart last year, but it was a real race. (Me – I haven’t thought about “King’s Speech” since it won the Oscars. I think about “Social Network” all the time.)

“Hugo” combines smart and sentiment. “Contagion,” like “Social Network” and “Moneyball,” is a mixture of intelligence and emotion. There’s always a faction of the business that prefers sentiment to emotion, but usually not to emotion’s exclusion.

“Contagion” works as a thriller, as a horror film, as a social drama, and as a character piece. It had a more than respectable showing at the box office. The competition is hardly fierce.

By any reasonable standard, this is a film that should be in contention. The audience was smart enough for it. Why not critics and voters?  


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