Okay, this film review is only half-spooky. But we'll pass the mutant pig-bats.
The Section Eighters
Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column with the irregular majuscules. One of the film companies whose work I most looked forward to seeing, back when this column still had a faint whiff of novelty about it, was Section Eight Productions – makers of Ocean’s Eleven, Far from Heaven, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and many others. Section Eight is no more, alas, but its founders continue to make films of commendable ambition and quality, as we shall see...
When I was but a lad one of my favourite stories was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea - not Verne's original novel (which I have since discovered to be a rather wearisomely didactic travelogue), but an illustrated adaptation of the 1954 Richard Fleischer movie. I pored over this time after time and you can surely imagine my excitement when it was re-released to cinemas. However, only trauma was to result as I came down with something nasty in the very same week and our wise old family practitioner advised that, much better though I was feeling, it was still not a good idea for me to go to the cinema while I was still potentially infectious.
Well, I've been pretty poorly again recently, but - as luck would have it - health service cut-backs make it actually quite difficult to see a doctor. So the decision as to whether or not it was advisable to go to the cinema this week was entirely down to your correspondent. You know, I take my social responsibilities quite seriously, and would hate to think I had frivolously passed on my particular brand of lurgy to anyone simply because I wanted to see a film. In the end I decided I could justify it as long as I stayed well away from other unsuspecting cinemagoers and went to a sparsely-attended matinee performance, thus absolutely minimising exposure. At least that was what I told myself on the way in on the bus, and again in the pub afterwards.
You'll never believe it, but all this nonsense proved to be entirely apropos as the movie I ended up seeing was Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, which was about... well not someone recklessly going to the pictures, but still. Basically, Soderbergh's scientifically rigorous thriller opens in the aftermath of Gwyneth Paltrow's visit to an Asian casino, during which she has been inadvertantly exposed to a mutant pig-bat virus. This does not stop her engaging in a little extramarital whoh-ho-ho on the way back home to her something of a dim-bulb husband, Matt Damon. The mutant pig-bat virus turns out to be a) energetically lethal (which is bad news for Gwyneth and arguably Matt), and b) enthusiastically communicable (which is bad news for everyone else in the world).
Pretty soon the authorities are on the case across the world, fortuitously embodied by a flotilla of the Hollywood A-list (Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, and so on). Someone buzzes off to the Far East in search of the origins of the mutant pig-bat virus, someone else heads to Gwyneth's neck of the woods to manage efforts to control the disease there, a third someone has to co-ordinate the overall strategy, and so on. Meanwhile Matt Damon struggles to not become a paranoid germophobe and to generally get on with his life despite the fact that, for one thing, he's not allowed to bury Gwyneth - they'd much rather she was cremated (possibly a case of 'One flu over - the cooker's next').
This is a big old star-studded whopper of a movie, or so it feels while you're watching it, and that's by no means intended as a criticism. Soderbergh orchestrates a sprawling, multi-stranded narrative with consummate skill, and for much of its running time this is a really gripping movie. It's more a collection of vignettes depicting various scenes of courage, integrity, foolishness, and loss, rather than a single coherent story, but on the whole this approach works pretty well. The only subplot that doesn't quite work focusses on Jude Law, who's playing an unpleasant and self-serving blogger. I suspect he's supposed to be Julian Assange, which is the only reason I can think of for the 'Hello possums!' accent Law deploys in the role.
The Damon subplot also looks a little bit superfluous to start with, as it doesn't really appear to be going anywhere - it's established early on that Matt is totally immune to mutant pig-bat viruses. A lot of it is to do with the extramarital excursion Gwyneth enjoyed shortly prior to her death, which gives Damon the chance for a lot of histrionic soul-searching. (The danger here is that it could almost look like Gwyneth was struck down as a judgement on her adulterous lifestyle, a rather reactionary impression for this kind of film to give.) However, as the story of the film unfolds over weeks and months, the 'human interest' story with Damon's character becomes increasingly important and it's clear this is why his character's been built up.
Joking apart, Scott Burns' script really works hard to seem horribly plausible and do new things with a well-established scenario. There's a lot of pleasingly crunchy-sounding epidemiology and virology along the way, and the progression of the crisis and the coming apart of society is, on the whole, credibly presented.
That said, most lethal-mutant-virus-threat plots conclude one of two ways - the virus never properly gets loose at all and everyone goes 'phew', or it does its stuff, kills 99% of the world's population, and the handful of survivors set off to the countryside to form communes and rebuild society in a new and better form (this is often the point at which the story-proper gets going - for example, the BBC's original Survivors, which this startlingly resembles at one point).
Except, apparently, viruses that lethal really don't come along very often and a fatality rate of even 5% of the global population is practically unheard of. This leaves the film the problem of how to find a proper climax, given all the most dramatic stuff happens in the opening stages of a pandemic - the latter stages of the film have novelty to commend them, but there's no substitute for proper storytelling structure! The solution Soderbergh opts for is a little dismaying - moments of jarring sentimentality start to appear with increasing frequency (many of them involving Damon's character),until by the end they're practically all the film has to offer. Soderbergh is too smart and classy to let his film degenerate into nothing but a schmaltzfest, but it's a shame that the pace and tension and intelligence of the early sections of the film couldn't have been sustained throughout.
And I suppose we must wonder what the purpose of this kind of film really is. Panic and misery and the death of millions is an odd topic for a piece of entertainment especially when the story isn't as big on crowd-pleasing spectacle as, say, 2012. I suspect it may largely be a simple case of a ghoulish impulse of delight in seeing all the walls falling down and things becoming just about as bad as we can conceive. As a catastrophe movie, Contagion is highly intelligent, thoroughly gripping, masterfully directed and (on the whole) very well played. It's not really a conventional story, but it's an impressive piece of film-making - even if it's a little short on practical advice on how to survive a global pandemic.
I for one was only able to discern three such suggestions -
- use your hand-sanitiser frequently and thoroughly
- get your panic-buying out of the way early
- watch out for mutant pig-bats.
Don't have nightmares, folks.
Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it... (Finish it yourselves.)
I was half-expecting George Clooney’s The Ides of March to have Steven Soderbergh involved with it in some capacity as well. The two have, after all, a lot of history together, most visibly with Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, but also with less commercial movies such as Solaris. But no, as mentioned at the start, Clooney and Soderbergh have parted company (amicably one hopes), and the only noticeable crossover of personnel between Contagion and The Ides of March is the presence of Jennifer Ehle, who plays a small but significant role in both films.
In addition to co-producing, co-writing, and directing the movie, George Clooney also appears as Mike Morris – not the former UK breakfast TV host, nor indeed the peerless Doctor Who critic and commentator, but a Democratic candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. Morris is looking good for the White House, partly due to his strong team, which is led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps even more crucial is the presence of brilliant media analyst and political operator Steve Meyers, who is the main character of the story. Meyers is played by Ryan Gosling (who’s having a pretty good few months, what with this and that movie about driving where he plays the driver who drives a lot, the name of which escapes me).
Morris’ candidacy for the Presidency is looking as assured as something of that nature can, but a crucial primary is looming (on the date of the title). Then Meyers is startled to receive a job offer from their chief opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), his relationship with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) unexpectedly brings a shocking secret to light, and as the polls unexpectedly start to shift against them Morris’ refusal to engage in the traditional political horse-trading begins to look naive rather than principled. With all his certainties crumbling Meyer is forced to ask himself exactly what his true priorities are...
Fans of The West Wing should run to see The Ides of March (possibly carrying on a complex dialogue with each other as they go), as this film operates in a very similar narrative space – the dialogue doesn’t crackle quite as much as Aaron Sorkin’s, but the dizzyingly swift pace, convoluted plot and strong characterisations should all seem very familiar. That said, there’s another sense in which this is a very different kind of story indeed – there was something almost Capraesque about The West Wing’s wide-eyed positivity about the political system and the people who work in it: no-one was really self-serving or anything but a very decent human being. The Ides of March starts off in a broadly similar vein , but the story of the film is the story of masks slipping in extremis and the true nature of the characters becoming clear: and I tell you, folks, it ain’t pretty.
That said, the film takes care not to get too worked up about this – from the very first scene, it’s made clear that for all his idealism, Meyers is a ruthless operator not above playing dirty (in a mild sort of way). On the other hand, for a film with – to put it mildly – a somewhat cynical view of the political animal, it’s notable that The Ides of March doesn’t actually have a villain. Giamatti’s character is just a little more obviously ruthless and goal-oriented than the rest.
As a British viewer I obviously watched this with a certain sense of detachment, but enough of the story is universal in nature for it to remain a very satisfying film. I wonder why we in this country can’t produce similarly satisfying political dramas more consistently? It can’t all be down to American hegemony. Perhaps the very nature of the American system lends itself more readily to this kind of narrative intensity.
One of the stories doing the rounds about this film is that Clooney and company first started work on it in 2008, but basically parked the project as they realised their audience wouldn’t be interested in such a jaded view of politicians in the year of Obama. Putting aside the question of why they’ve decided to make it now, it seems to me that this is another movie springing from the Clinton era. You may recall a number of key films from the mid-to-late 90s which cast the President of the US in such unlikely roles as romantic lead, gritty terrorist-basher, and jet-piloting alien exterminator, all surely products of the enormous positivity of key Hollywood figures towards Bill Clinton. Fifteen years on, here is a movie – not the first of its kind, of course – which concentrates on the darker side. Quite how many personal foibles are we prepared to overlook, if the right candidate comes along? Can a principled man really succeed in modern politics? We’re left to decide for ourselves how much of Morris’ persona is an act – Clooney has less screen time than you may be expecting.
That said, he’s very good whenever he does appear, as is everyone else: this is a very strongly-written and uniformly well-played drama, which grips from the start and has some very powerful and moving moments along the way – along with a few lighter moments, of course. Overall it’s an impressive package. If, like Contagion, it ultimately seems to be lamenting things which lie beyond anyone’s power to change, then so be it – sometimes it’s for the best that we remind ourselves of uncomfortable truths, especially if doing so means making movies as good as this one.