Year Released: 2011
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet
(PG-13, 106 min.)
"Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone." Dr. Erin Mears
This disaster film works so well because it avoids the usual pitfalls of that genre -- namely hysterical fear mongering, sentimental claptrap, and political gamesmanship.
In fact, it is the dissonance between the event itself -- a virulent pandemic that is as swift as it is deadly -- and the even handed low key telling of it that captures our imagination.
The disease is so swift and lethal, in fact, that we are more numb than horrified. Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) seems to be nursing a combination of jet lag and a bad cold as she settles back into her Minneapolis home after a business trip to Hong Kong. Even her son seems to have it. “Don’t worry. We’ll have you both well in time for Thanksgiving,” husband Matt Damon assures. Instead both are dead within days.
One of the most human scenes in the film is Damon’s reaction when the hospital doctors tell him his wife has died. He nods as they break the news to him, seeming to accept it calmly. “But when can I talk to her,” he asks, a non sequitur that however rings very true.
Where we have come to expect histrionics and melodrama, it is that very muted human element that is so effective. Just a dash of emotion as one of the CDC officials has to ask Thomas Emhoff (Matt Damon) about his wife’s five hour layover in Chicago and the person she might have seen there as indicated by her phone log. In fact, Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet), new at her job, seems as pained as the bereaved husband as she tip toes around the details of his wife’s final infidelity.
We have small heroics rather than grand ones. Elliot Gould plays a doctor who refuses to follow orders to stop testing the virus when it is deemed too dangerous to work with in his lab. We also see a healthy dose of ambition as well as scientific curiosity as part of his motivation, probably about the same amount that prompts most discoveries, I’d say.
Another doctor skips protocol and tries a vaccine on herself, recalling her father’s story about how that same unconventional method was used by the doctor who proved the bacterial connection to stomach ulcers. The scene is a little melodramatic, since to test it she purposely rips off her facial mask during a visit to the isolation ward where her father now lies dying, but moving nonetheless.
Laurence Fishburne plays Dr. Ellis Cheever, the head of Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control with just the right amount of scientific detachment, political savvy, and humanity. With the overreaction to the H1N1 (Swine Flu) virus still haunting the agency, they tread softly, warily walking due diligence through the woods of panic. Of course, the possibility of bio terrorism is ever present. Someone asks if it is possible that bird flu has been weaponized. The Shakespearean actor replies briskly: “Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are doing that.” Fishburne carries with him a power and magnetism that recall his 1995 performance as Othello. But there is a tenderness as well.
He dispatches Dr. Mears, his young CDC apprentice, to the virus hotspot in Minnesota like a father sending his daughter off to college, telling her to call him at any time if she has trouble. Very human as well, when, knowing there may soon be state quarantines, he breaks with protocol, telling his girlfriend to leave Chicago and come directly to Atlanta.
Refreshingly absent are the blame games usually indicting corporations or government agencies. In fact, the closest thing we have to a villain is someone who himself owes his fame to fanning these flames. Jude Law, decked out with some bad teeth and even worse ethics, plays health blogger Alan Krumwiede, who claims to have found a natural cure for the pandemic. His screed is filled with conspiracy theories about the unbounded corruption and greed of Big Pharma and Big Government, but he seems more than willing to profit big time in a similar matter if he can. He’s an equal opportunity offender, too, seeming to meld both the left and right extremes in his attitudes.
“Blogging isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation,” Dr. Ian Sussman tell him in a snub that Krumwiede probably deserves, even if most of his blogging colleagues do not. The normally attractive Jude Law seems to revel in this wormy little character, wandering the streets in his homemade biohazard suit and breathlessly touting forsythia, his natural cure, throughout cyber space.
Matt Damon also plays his part pitch perfect. He is just an ordinary, decent guy, trying to make it from day to day in the mass hysteria, protecting his remaining daughter in a slightly obsessive way that now seems quite natural, given the times. This understated “everyman” seems to suit him well as we have seen in his solid performances in the recent Hereafter and The Adjustment Bureau.
You will be riveted to your seat for the entire one hour and forty-six minute running time. Just make sure to use the public restroom and get your drink from the water fountain beforehand, since after the film you will probably not want to indulge in either of those two activities ever again.
After the film, you will probably not want to eat for a while, particularly not Asian delicacies. As a matter of fact, you will have to work very hard to resist the notion to ward yourself off in a small stainless steel cubicle for several days.
What you might need is a good drink. In deference to the home base of the Center for Disease Control, I have looked to Atlanta, Georgia, for inspiration, coming up with not just one, but two versions of The Georgia Peach Cocktail.
Here’s to your health, no pun intended.
Georgia Peach Cocktail
Georgia Peach Recipe #1
- 1 oz. peach schnapps
- orange juice
- cranberry juice
Pour peach schnapps over ice in a highball glass. Top with orange and cranberry juice to taste and serve.
Georgia Peach Recipe #2
- ¾ Southern Comfort peach liqueur
- 1 oz. peach schnapps
- 4 oz. orange juice
- 1 dash grenadine syrup
In a highball glass filled with ice, add Southern Comfort, peach schnapps, and fill with orange juice. Mix. Top with a dash of grenadine. Garnish with cherry and serve in a highball glass.
Recipe Source: Drinksmixer.com