By Isaac Butler
I’ve always been willing to give Steven Soderbergh the benefit of the doubt. This is largely due to 1998’s Out Of Sight and 1999’s The Limey, both of which are essentially perfect and both of which are in a whole separate league from Traffic and Eric Brockovich, the films that established him in the public eye as a master who finally made good on his promise and won him the Best Director Oscar.
Since that win, Soderberg’s track record has been, well, strange, to say the least. It seems that making an expertly crafted film has never been much of a challenge for him, and so his restless muse has taken him in other directions, pursuing other, more private fascinations. His fascination with non-actors, improvisation and the border between fiction and non has given birth to unrewarding projects like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience and his two television shows for HBO. It also appears to have lead him to cast a mixed martial arts star rather than an actor in the lead role in Haywire. At times, his interests are at such an angle to the material that they cross over into perversion. The Good German is as much an assault on the cannon of 1940s films—and the audience that loves it without thinking through politics and context—as it is a spy thriller. Oceans 12, with it’s often improvised, famous-people-fucking-around feel is one of those movies you either find intolerably smug or hilariously loopy.
While it’s tempting to use the Oscar win—Soderbergh on the Academy stage, dedicating his award to anyone who takes time out of their day to make art—as some kind of dividing line in his career, the truth is his body of work has always been choppy. Of course, given that Steven Soderbergh essentially ignighted the latter day independent film movement, he was probably destined to have an odd career journey. The fantastic, improbable success of 1989’s Sex, Lies & Videotape made him the youngest man to win the Palm D’or at Cannes and an instant directorial superstar. Sex Lies & Videotape is less important to the history of film because it’s good (although it is, even Andie McDowell can’t ruin it, try though she might) but because it was successful critically and commercially. Combined with My Left Foot later that year, it put Miramax on the map and helped set the stage for the explosion in independent (or, I suppose, quasi-independent) filmmaking afterwards.
But let’s not forget, between Sex, Lies & Videotape and Out of Sight there were Kafka, The Underneath, King Of The Hill, Schizopolis and the Spalding Grey film Grey’s Anatomy, all of which contain elements that prefigure the post-Traffic half of Soderbergh’s career. And the second half of that career is actually better than most people think. Ocean’s Eleven is perfect pop entertainment, a slick (but not anonymous) heist comedy with a great David Holmes score and surprising moments of beauty. The Informant! is a spectacular example of how rewarding irony can be. The Good German and Ocean’s 12 have few defenders, but I’m amongst them, although that is a post for a different day.
It seems to me that Steven Soderbergh has spent his career doing exactly what we say we want artists to do. He’s constantly challenged himself, remained experimental even when working on mainstream projects, and has never been afraid of critical or commercial failure or making films that are divisive. Most of the projects of his that don’t work aren’t so much spectacular failures as they are either too slight to care about or, well, boring.
Now he’s announced his retirement, a retirement no one believes will last very long, particularly given the unsatisfying roster of final projects he has on his plate, which include Haywire, a female double-crossed-agent-seeks-revenge actioner and a biopic of Liberace.
Which brings us to Contagion, an old-fashioned star-studded disaster movie that, for all its considerable cold-hearted craft, fails to ever really connect. Part of the reason for this is not the film’s fault. Many—but not all— of the most impactful and chilling moments in the film are in its ubiquitous trailer. But two other key decisions mar the film irreparably.
The first is the decision to shift the film’s genre from disaster thriller to a combination of procedural and public health PSA about a third of the way in. Indeed, the first thirty minutes of the film (which include the death of a child and a way-more-graphic than you might expect autopsy) let you believe that you’re in for something more hardcore, tonally complex and troubling than the film delivers. The second mistake is to fill it chock-a-block with diverging plot lines, any one of which would’ve made a better single subject for the film. As a result of both of these, every other scene is crammed so full of exposition that no dramatic tension can ever establish itself. The movie has so many pretty-good ideas that it never settles on any one of them long enough to take pretty-good to good, let alone great and thus ends up feeling at times like a two hour paean to washing one’s hands.
Still, while the whole might not cohere, the individual parts are for the most part, well executed. The acting is across the board excellent. One thing that often gets lost in the discussion of Soderbergh-as-cerebral-auteur is how consistently good the acting in his movies is. This is the man who made Jennifer Lopez seem believable on screen and turned George Clooney into an actor, who realized that lurking within Matt Damon is a genius-level deadpan comedic character actor and that Julia Roberts is the Keith Moon of shouting at people. Everyone in Contagion is tasked with taking the bare outlines of a character and turning them into something more and they basically all succeed. A special shoutout has to go to Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes who has three lines in the film and manages to create an entire human being out of them and veteran stage actress Jennifer Ehle, who manages to make large swaths of exposition seem natural and in-character.
It’s also a pleasure to watch Soderbergh wield a camera and an editing suite with the virtuoso precision that he’s known for. Color palette gets a real workout in this movie without ever seeming as heavy handed as Traffic, and—with the exception of a scene so cheesy it needs U2 to score it—the film consistently nails a kind of deadpan dread. Soderbergh is able to move through large swaths of time at will without losing the plot, and pretty much every shot is a master class in how to make fastidious craft and staging look natural and effortless.
Ultimately, however, these pleasures are not enough to sustain the movie. By trying to cram in a BBC Miniseries worth of material to roughly two hours traffic on the screen, Contagion can’t ever achieve liftoff and as a result, it ends up wearing its politics on its sleeve. While they’re largely politics I agree with—pro-Federal Government, pro-Rationalism, pro-Western Medicine, anti-Homeopathy, hilariously anti-Blogger— they’re telegraphed so overtly, and with such little nuance that they weigh the project down. There are glimpses of what might have been throughout, but ultimately Contagion left me, yes, perhaps a bit bored, if still in awe of what Soderbergh can do.