Nominated for Nothing: How was 'Contagion' not Oscar bait?

contagion

Every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Persona, Breathless, Hoop Dreams, King Kong, Caddyshack — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The Film: Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a globe-trotting chronicle of an apocalyptic epidemic featuring a ridiculously star-packed A-List cast, including Oscar winners (Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Laurence Fishburne), nominees (Jude Law, Elliot Gould, John Hawkes), and even a tiny role for current TV demi-god Bryan Cranston.

Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Viewed from one perspective, Contagion looks like pure Oscar bait. Here’s a movie from an Academy Award-winning director, featuring the aforementioned decorated cast. The film addresses a timely trend (the fear of a Bird Flu-esque disease) in a style that also addresses more deep-seated anxieties about our modern age (the fear of a globalized society and the decline of the Western world — it’s no accident that Contagion‘s disease originates in China).

You could argue that Contagion is a genre the Academy doesn’t usually recognize, and also that the film’s sprawling cast instantly defeats any potential for an acting nomination. But the expanded Best Picture race has recently allowed the Oscars to nominate some films that are outside the Academy’s typical drama-biopic-epic strike zone. (Remember: A couple years ago, a totally weird South African sci-fi action movie about a man turning into a crab alien received a Best Picture nomination.) And the Academy is no stranger to big-cast films — recall Crash. And although Contagion wasn’t a  megahit, it made a healthy $75 million domestically — more than The Descendants and exactly as much as Moneyball.

But Contagion never even seems to have been on the Academy’s radar. Part of that is attributable to the director. Steven Soderbergh is one of only two directors to have received two separate Best Director nominations in the same year: One for Erin Brockovich and one for Traffic. Soderbergh won for Traffic — although the fact that Julia Roberts won for Brockovich could be considered a stealth double-victory — but Soderbergh’s never even been nominated since then. In fact, in the eleven years since Traffic and Brockovich, Soderbergh’s thirteen films have garned a grand total of one nomination: Thomas Newman’s musical score for The Good German.

Not that Soderbergh seems to particularly care. The director’s particular brand of moviemaking is hard to pin down, but there are roughly two distinct forms of Soderbergh films: Purposefully obtuse art films, and eccentric genre films. In the former category, you find The Girlfriend Experience, Solaris, and the Che duology. In the latter, you find the Ocean’s trilogy, Haywire, and most especially Contagion. If there’s one through line in Soderbergh’s work, it’s a remarkable lack of sentimentality, and a complete unwillingness to follow any prefabricated Hollywood formula. (Soderbergh occasionally feels like a foreign director who happens to be American.)

And make no mistake: The Academy loves sentimentality. All nine movies nominated for Best Picture this year are designed to make your heart hurt. Even The Tree of Life, an undeniably arty curiosity, is soaked with emotion and cosmic nostalgia. (Suffice it to say, the Werner Herzog version of Tree of Life would look quite a bit different.) When you realize that, Contagion never had a chance. This is a film which seems to make a gleeful game of killing off beloved Hollywood stars: Gwyneth Paltrow famously dies in the first reel, and for good measure, Soderbergh has a doctor pull her face off.

Of course, bleak films have won Oscars before — just think of the 2008 Oscars, when No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood dominated the evening. The difference, though, is that No Country and Blood were both dominated by vicious, miles-over-the-top performances, by Javier Bardem and Daniel Day-Lewis, that seemed to perfectly incarnate a religious vision of pure evil. There is no incarnation of evil in Contagion: Just a random smattering of humanity fighting an enemy that is scarily unknowable.

More importantly a few noteworthy exceptions, Soderbergh has never seemed particularly interested in Academy-baiting histrionics. In the last few years, he’s perfected a cool, even detached film style, which can seem remarkably un-Hollywood. (It can also seem incredibly boring, which explains the shockingly extreme love/hate responses Soderbergh’s films can provoke.) Besides Jude Law, the all-star cast of Contagion mostly plays their characters with some combination of quiet strength, quiet anxiety, and quiet quietude. The one character in the film who could be considered the film’s hero (Minor Spoiler) is also the film’s least recognizable actor: Jennifer Ehle, star of the old-school BBC Pride & Prejudice, who plays the scientist who finally discovers a cure for Contagion‘s megavirus.

In short, we’re looking at a film that purposefully has no Oscar “moments,” no heroes, no villains, no horses, and no scenes where characters cry while declaring their belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity. Also, Gwyneth Paltrow purposefully looks terrible.

Why History Will Remember It More Fondly Than Extremely Loud & Incredible Close: If Steven Soderbergh occasionally seems too cool for school, it’s because… well, he is. Because Contagion refuses to do very much hand-holding, it’s also the rare genre film that doesn’t opt for any cheap thrills. The slow-burn tension of Contagion feels genuinely earned — and the film’s portrayal of modern civilization gradually descending into chaos is all the more terrifying for occurring mostly at a human’s-eye-view. (There are no swooping Michael Bay-ish helicopter shots in Contagion, because swooping Michael Bay-ish helicopter shots are stupid.)

Because the movie strips most of the melodrama out of its apocalyptic topic, the few scenes that do go melodramatic are all the more memorable. Think of the scene when Winslet, struggling through the fatal virus, weakly offers her blanket to the dying man in the sickbed next to her. Or notice the delicate interplay between Matt Damon and his daughter, filled with tiny moments that realistically equate the hell of living through a global pandemic with the more relatable hell of raising a teenage daughter.

Because Contagion is such a remarkably efficient thrill-delivery system, it’s only on a second viewing that you notice all the film’s strikingly unique achievements. The techno score is subtle, incisive, like a declining heartbeat; it sounds like something Hans Zimmer’s evil twin brother would cook up mid-hallucinogen, but it’s actually by Cliff Martinez, a non-Nominee VIP who also wasn’t recognized for his work on Drive. Soderbergh’s cinematography evokes the film’s global setting without resorting to Traffic-esque color contrasts. Really, if there’s one huge oversight here, it’s that Stephen Mirrione wasn’t nominated for Best Editing. Contagion so nimbly hops between character arcs and genre tones: now a Parks and Recreation-esque snapshot of local government inanity, now a Network-ish media satire, now a pharmaceuticals-company inquisition, now a portrait of quiet heroism. If that’s not good film editing, then what is? (The Descendants, apparently.)

Contagion‘s clinical style isn’t for everyone. But maybe it should be. The current Best Picture list features lots of movies with big scenes, massive emotions, and capital-T Themes. Contagion might be unsentimental, but it isn’t hopeless. And when other disaster movies like 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and a few other Roland Emmerich movies I’m forgetting are consigned to the DVD dustbins, Contagion will remain a cerebral disaster film that cares less about the disaster and more about the humans struggling to survive.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:
EW Special Coverage: Oscars 2012
Nominated for Nothing on EW

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