I used to work at a place that did professional wargaming. Not the kind with little paper chits and 20-sided dice, but the kind in which we got a bunch of smart and capable people in a room, threw them a scenario, and analyzed how they did (or didn’t) work together to deal with the situation. Contagion feels like a dramatization of one of those wargames.
The scenario: a highly contagious, deadly virus comes out of Macau, borne abroad by several of the thousands of international travelers who pass through in a given week. It propagates around the world exponentially. Player #1: you’re an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization. Player #2: you’re the head of the CDC. Player #3: Homeland security. Player #4: a suburban city councilwoman at the American center of the epidemic. Go.
Does it work in the film? Yeah. Likeable stars like Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, and Lawrence Fishburne put faces to dilemmas, helping us humanize the scope of the epidemic and empathize with their respective ethical and professional challenges. The stories weave together fluidly, each informing the others and catching us up in their combined narrative. The film rockets along and never feels like the dull procedural it could have become. Contagion challenged and fascinated me, making me feel like I was back in the room of one of those wargames, moving things along and learning from the process.
Grim as the film’s subject matter surely is, I found it to be intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I walked out thinking, “That’s how it could really play out. Nice work.” I haven’t changed my mind, even if I have changed my habits: I’m washing my hands more.