On Movies: 'Contagion' and 'The Interrupters' deserve attention
Since "The Andromeda Strain" (1971), at least, germs gone wild have been a staple of the horror genre, producing dozens and dozens of well-attended movies (or at least oft-rented ones). One reason for the popularity of plague movies in our time is that the deadly microbes are believably out there, seething in steel canisters deep in foreign (and domestic) armories, evilly evolving in the blood and saliva of tropical monkeys.
In "Contagion," the latest, and possibly the best, of all the plague movies, the virus that drives the plot begins the story traveling in the lissome body of American businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow). The virus appears to have come with her from Hong Kong, although Beth could have picked it up in transit from China to her home in Minneapolis, perhaps during a dalliance at a stop off in Chicago.
In any event, Beth is doomed, and with her death early in the movie (and in the TV promo trailer) director Steven Soderbergh gives the audience notice: If he is willing to kill off Gwyneth Paltrow before the movie has really begun, then who is safe? Her husband, Matt Damon? Their adorable kids? Scientists Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Elliott Gould? Conspiracy blogger Jude Law?
Once the existence of the lethal virus is discovered, the movie proceeds on many tracks, the major ones being in Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Switzerland and China. There are horrifying moments and well-crafted scenes that hide the horror but let us know it exists - some of the images of large public spaces empty of people as fear of the virus spreads worldwide have undeniable power, like similar shots in the Stanley Kramer classic "On the Beach."
Soderbergh suggests much more than he shows, and his movie has a lean, methodical swiftness that is emotionally and intellectually satisfying.
It's a pleasure to watch a skilled director like Soderbergh at work, whether the film is one of his more serious pieces ("Traffic") or an unabashed crowd-pleaser (the "Ocean's Eleven" movies). The man simply knows how to put film together.
"Contagion" is both a serious movie and a potential crowd-pleaser. Within the context of what is at bottom an intelligent medical thriller, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns lay out the science in dramatic terms, explaining why this particular virus is so deadly and so difficult to come to terms with. At the same time, the filmmakers raise moral issues: What would you do if you could save the life of a loved one by taking a chance on endangering thousands of strangers? And what if the only way to defeat the disease is to catch it yourself?
Opens Friday Sept. 9
The job title "violence interrupters" smacks of social-work jargon, but these street-hardened men and women spend very little time debating academic theory as they confront very real danger on the meanest streets of Chicago. The "interrupters," some of them with long prison records, have reclaimed their lives and work for a community group called CeaseFire that is trying against long odds to stop the cycle of violence that engulfs urban neighborhoods. That violent attacks will occur seems inevitable: Their job is to stop the retaliation that prolongs and multiplies the violence and ultimately destroys neighborhoods.
"The Interrupters" is directed by Steve James, who studied film at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and whose resume includes the superb 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams," the story of two young black men from Chicago who dreamed of playing in the National Basketball Association. This time, the focus of the movie is on three violence interrupters: a black man, a black woman and a Hispanic man, all former gang members. (The woman, Ameena Matthews, the daughter of a notorious Chicago gang leader, is a charismatic blend of street toughness and empathy. She emerges by force of personality as the star of the movie, but the men, both with serious prison records, both with their own kind of charisma, are interesting, too.)
Although dramatically uneven and, at times, confusingly hectic, "The Interrupters" is remarkable as a pure work of cinema verite, exposing at a chillingly intimate level the hopelessness and anger in a city where, at one point during the filming, 20 people were shot in a single night. In neighborhoods where the wrong word or glance can lead to murder, James filmed for more than 300 hours over 14 months, so skillfully that gang members barely seemed to notice he was there.
(Of course, at some level they must have known he was filming them. But there is little sense that anyone was acting for the film - the presence of cameras is clearly not necessary for urban gang violence to explode. And no one is chanting, as young people once did in the embattled streets of Chicago, "The whole world is watching." Perhaps media-surfeited young people today just assume that is the case.)
"The Interrupters" is overlong at 2 hours and 5 minutes, and sometimes disorganized, but it is well worth seeing for the vivid human portrait it paints of our most dangerous neighborhoods, and of the brave, committed men and women who are trying to change them. At the end, it seems to deliver an honest assessment of the battle against urban youth violence - it can only be won by dedicated men and women, and their victories will only come a few human beings at a time.
Opens Friday Sept. 9
Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. To reach him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.