The film opens on a quiet black screen punctured by a single sound: a woman coughing. It’s not just nervous throat-clearing. This is a heavy, phlegmatic cough, one that telegraphs with zero doubt that this person is sick. Over the course of the next 106 minutes, the cough becomes the heartbeat of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, and its primary fear trigger. As casualties mount and paranoia increases, the cough is a reminder that circumstances are about to get a lot worse before they get better.
As awareness of coronavirus and its death toll spreads, so too have renewed discussions of the 2011 pandemic drama starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Coughing Patient Zero. The movie numbered among the top-ten films rented on iTunes earlier this week, after experiencing a surge in Google searches and Twitter mentions. The connections between our real-life outbreak and the film’s “MEV1” infection are striking: Both illnesses originated in Asia, passed from bats to humans, and entered the world via a live-animal market. “Funny how Contagion predicted how the world would react to a deadly virus” is, at the moment, not an uncommon online refrain.
But more than the similarities it brings to mind, rewatching Soderbergh’s virus fantasia is a reminder of how far we as a virus-phobic audience have come. Contagion sprang to life in theaters nearly a decade ago, when the saga of a competent federal government triumphing over a villainous conspiracy theorist didn’t seem all that far-fetched. Nor did its overriding ethos of respect for, and trust in, traditional institutions. Today, it’s hard to know how to feel when the closing credits roll: comforted by the dramatization of a virus contained, or disturbed by the utter fiction of its happy ending?
Back in 2011, Soderbergh described Contagion as an “ultrarealistic” take on pandemics, focused more on the banality of the virus and humanity’s struggle to tame it than the postapocalyptic potential of its spread. At the same time, it followed in the footsteps of disaster epics before it, particularly those of super-producer Irwin Allen, responsible for The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and When Time Ran Out. “We’re doing exactly what he did,” Soderbergh explained, “using a lot of movie stars and trying to scare a lot of people.” Exactly is perhaps an overstatement. The heroes of Allen’s 1970s films were usually rugged loners who stepped in to clean up the messes made by corrupt bureaucrats and dirty politicians. In Contagion, however, the bureaucrats are the heroes. It is a story about a crisis caused by the private sector and corrected by the public sector: The federal government saves the day in the form of selfless CDC doctors and administrators, efficient Homeland Security officials, and compassionate scientists.
“The average person touches their face two or three thousand times a day,” says one such doctor, Kate Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears, in an effort to explain how an illness could so quickly spread from a Minnesota businesswoman to residents of both Hong Kong and London, and eventually beyond — possibly the result of a biological weapon, possibly not. “Three to five times every waking minute. In between, we’re touching doorknobs, water fountains, elevator buttons … and each other.”
Quotes like this don’t exactly render MEV1 as the most compelling of movie villains, and so Soderbergh introduces us to Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a conspiracy-theorist blogger who announces, in his very first scene, “Print media is dying!” As a “nontraditional” journalist, Krumwiede is portrayed as wildly unethical, willing to use his megaphone to sell a snake-oil “cure” that does little more than put money in his own pockets. The Glenn Beck-ian nature of the character is a subtle reminder that Contagion was written, produced, and released during the first Obama administration. The panic over, and response to, the 2009 H1N1 virus was its direct inspiration, and Contagion’s calm, measured depiction of the CDC’s response seemed to reflect the public’s more positive feelings about government at the time. We later learn that the fictional outbreak was caused by an environmentally destructive private company; here, just as it had in 2008, the federal government bails out an irresponsible free market.
In 2011, this seemed possible. But in 2020, this kind of well-functioning government seems like science fiction. Nearly two years ago, the Trump administration cut 80 percent of the CDC’s epidemic-prevention efforts worldwide. Then the administration diverted funds from the CDC budget to house detained migrant children. Even the position of secretary of Homeland Security is in flux; Chad Wolf, the current acting chief, is the fifth to hold the interim position.
In the closing scenes of Contagion, thanks mostly to the efforts of its government-funded doctors and researchers (one of whom injects herself with the virus, to better evaluate the effectiveness of a cure), a vaccine is developed, tested, and mass produced. “It’s gonna start getting normal again,” Matt Damon assures his daughter, who maintains a contact-free relationship with her boyfriend throughout the pandemic and its aftermath (a Rockwell painting of faith and chastity). We learn that a birthday-based lottery will be used to deploy the vaccine, with randomly chosen, numbered ping-pong balls read aloud on live television, to most fairly determine who will get treated first.
The idea of such an easy, structured ending is borderline comical. Nine years removed, the film feels less “ultrarealstic” and more like the ultimate fantasy, a salve for the world-weary citizens of today. Once you get past the film’s depiction of a society temporarily undone by home invasions and grocery-store looting, there is something strangely calming about its portrayal of selfless public servants simply doing their jobs well. The heretofore unthinkable chaos that has come to define daily life not even a decade hence makes Contagion feel, in the midst of our growing pandemic, like something Soderbergh and his team could’ve never imagined: comfort food.
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