Cinema imagines the apocalypse on a regular basis, touching on everything from Mayan calendar-related polar shifts to the ever-popular walking dead. Few films, however, dare to deal with scenarios that could actually happen; that’s what makes Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” which looks at a deadly global flu pandemic and its consequences, both unique and quite terrifying.
The world has seen a few false alarms over viral outbreaks in the past decade — Ebola, SARS, bird flu — but most scientists agree that it’s only a matter of time until a killer strain emerges, and with our globalized planet, tied together by air travel and trade, the spread of the virus is likely to be measured in days, not months.
Soderbergh employs a large ensemble cast — Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow and more — and as many locations to depict the outbreak, the government-led response and the utter breakdown of society when it fails. Stadiums are filled with the sick and dying as hospitals are overwhelmed, while streets are filled with looters and uncollected trash, as the infected search desperately for a cure.
Much of “Contagion” will seem eerily familiar to anyone who was in Japan in the aftermath of March 11 and the Fukushima meltdowns, particularly the flight from affected areas and the panicky (though short-lived) run on supermarkets; seeing how this plays out in Minnesota, one can only feel glad Japan has stricter gun laws. “Contagion” is also quite on the mark in how it portrays government officials withholding information from the public on the grounds of “averting panic,” while on the other extreme, it has an unscrupulous blogger (played by Jude Law) who’s happy to upload every unfounded rumor as truth.
In times of crisis, who can you trust? For libertarian viewers, the film’s answer would be “the lock on your door and a loaded 12-gauge shotgun,” though progressives can point to the eventual salvation delivered by big government, namely the hard-working scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. It’s a thought-provoking film that brings you face-to-face with the unimaginable; it’s also one that will make you particularly uncomfortable about every cough and sniffle on your train ride home.
For those already sufficiently stressed out with real-world nightmares, there’s always baseball. “Moneyball” — which Soderbergh was scheduled to direct until he was axed by Sony and replaced by Bennett Miller (“Capote”) — has Brad Pitt in the role of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who in 2002 steered a low-budget team to become a World Series contender.
Based on author Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” the film depicts how free-spending teams such as the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox would always be able to purchase the cream, so small-market managers like Beane had to find a way to win with sour milk.
Beane’s secret? Metrics. Disregarding the gut instincts of scouts that had informed generations of subjective decisions, Beane assembled a data-driven collection of castaway and imperfect players who could be purchased on the cheap. Home runs and steals were flashy, but drawing walks and slugging percentages could also win you games; this was the Major League equivalent of guerrilla warfare.
“Moneyball” is to “Bull Durham” as “Casino” is to “Rounders,” i.e., it focuses not on the game itself but what goes on behind closed doors. With its strategy-driven plot of canny trades, locker-room politics and stat-driven lineup selections, it will certainly appeal to the fantasy baseball obsessives out there.
If this seems a little dry, Pitt spices things up with a relaxed yet nuanced performance, arguably better than his much-hyped turn in “Tree of Life.” Pitt delves into the psychology that drives the man, including his own past failure as a player and his postdivorce relationship with his daughter. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the team’s irascible old-school manager, Art Howe, and Jonah Hill as Beane’s computer-geek assistant (who declares bluntly that “baseball thinking is medieval”) round out a cast that’s studded with actual Major League players.
The movie’s irony is that despite its dedication to the idea that it’s stats, not instincts, that really matter, the big game-winning home run comes from a player whose pinch-hit moment of glory comes very much from a manager’s hunch. There’s some small comfort in that fact, though not much.