Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011)

My mother’s daily mantra of parental cautions included “Try not to touch your face” and, after any stroll through a public place, “Wash your hands.”

She had good reason. I’ve always been very susceptible to the common cold and the flu; daily multivitamins aren’t enough to shield me. As a kid, I must have missed a hundred days of school and used up a forest’s worth of Kleenex. I’d been hospitalized with pneumonia twice by the age of six. As an adult, I probably miss a dozen days a year in order to stay home and experiment with home remedies.

Funny thing is, I don’t remember much about all those long, unpleasant hours. I know they happened. But those experiences of sniffling, sneezing, aching, coughing, stuffy-head, and fever have evaporated from my memory.

Like most sicknesses, Steven Soderberg’s new film—unimaginatively titled Contagion—is a living nightmare as you experience it. It’s a riveting disaster movie about a seemingly unstoppable pandemic that begins with flu symptoms and quickly moves on to more serious symptoms—death, for instance.

The film’s unnerving plausibility is a credit to Soderbergh, who is so busy focusing on the details of how such a scenario would (and very likely will) play out around the globe that he leaves himself very little time for the typical monster-movie conventions most disaster movies employ. Characters are given just enough heart for us to feel those hearts breaking. But there’s no time for sentimentality. And although we may yearn for familiar turning points—euphoric discoveries, exhilarating rescues—we’re denied the relief that genre formulas deliver. The movie’s rare allowances for “good news” happen so quietly and matter of factly, you might miss them. Soderbergh’s more interested in the dynamics of public paranoia, the fragility of order, and the dangers of disinformation, than he is in the emotions of losing a spouse and a child.

I suppose you could call it a “clinical” thriller. Above all, it’s a lesson in social studies enhanced with elements of satire and suspense films. It has more in common with two hours of TV’s The Wire than James Cameron’s Titanic.

So yes, it’s scary—primarily for its refusal to make us comfortable with genre conventions and its efficient way of “documenting” the near collapse of civilization as plagues of disease, terror, anger, and selfishness take over.

I went in wondering how it would compare to other disease films like Outbreak. I came out thinking instead about 28 Days Later, which remains one of the most thoughtful films about life in a world of unstoppable disease. Sure, Danny Boyle’s film was about zombies. But when crowds of cure-seeking people are driven into a panic, they can be even scarier than zombies because we know that shit is just a few hours of bad news away from our neighborhoods at any given moment.

Nevertheless, like most illnesses I’ve survived, Contagion is surprisingly forgettable—so much so that I’m having trouble recalling imagery, dialogue, or the specifics of major developments just a few days after seeing it. I can remember exactly one line of dialogue—but I don’t want to spoil it (although I see that plenty of other reviewers remember that line too, and didn’t hesitate). And the only image in the film that sticks with me… well, let me get back to that, because it haunts me for several reasons.

Why did the film evaporate from my memory so quickly? Perhaps it’s because, as in Soderbergh’s millennium-marking release Traffic, there are myriad characters and storylines in play—so many that these fleeting 105 minutes does not give us enough time become very well acquainted with them. What is more, while the threat is compelling, the actors impressive, and the characters engaging—especially in their feverish endeavors to solve its mystery and cure it—none of these characters or stories are particularly interesting.

Sure, we care about Matt Damon’s character—Mitch Emhoff, a thoughtful and compassionate husband and father who loses some of his loved ones and then struggles to protect those that remain. Damon is perfectly cast; he’s proven himself time and time again as a character who runs from one place to another determined to find answers while death snaps at his heels.

Sure, we care about Kate Winslet and Lawrence Fishburne, a field worker and a leader at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re our most likely heroes as they rush to learn about the disease and gather information in hopes of finding a cure. (Fishburne is a surprising choice for such a significant role, and he’s especially good. His solemn dignity is assuring. Unlike most actors who do both theatre and film, he understands the difference between acting for a live audience and acting for the camera. His steadiness and restraint give his character gravity. I hope more filmmakers will notice this, and give him more lead roles.)

And it’s a delight to see Jennifer Ehle given a prominent role. She plays the film’s warmest, most endearing presence—Dr. Hally Extall, a scientist willing to invest more than her mind in her cure-seeking diligence. A scene between Hally and her ailing father is particularly moving.

But some actors get stuck with meandering, half-baked Marion Cotillard ends up playing out the film’s most extraneous, unnecessary story, and that’s a shame. This is Marion Cotillard, and our time in her presence is precious! (Thank God that Woody Allen clearly understood that when he made Midnight in Paris.)

Others’ performances are entertaining as they push scenes to the edge of satire. Elliot Gould gets some of the film’s funniest moments as a scientist whose expertise is disrespected. And Jude Law is amusing as Alan Krumweide, an opportunistic Australian blogger in San Francisco. As he did in Road to Perdition, Law proves that he can build a memorably aggravating character around a set of fake, crooked teeth.

But a drama of this magnitude deserves memorable, nuanced characters. If we could have spent more time with them—maybe even an hour more—I might have stopped thinking Oh, there’s Elliot Gould! I love him! and Oh, good, we’re finally back to the Matt Damon story!  May be a special edition DVD will give the film a more literary arc, make it feel less like an all-star game.

Having said that, I’ll say a few things about what still intrigues me about the movie.

It’s easy to see Krumweide, who publishes information and misinformation irresponsibly and exploits public distrust of the government, as a political cartoon criticizing Julian Assange. Many have commented on that already. But to me, he seems to me to work as a more general critique of a thousand bloggers who are looking to become the Next Big Thing, begging for attention any which way they can get it. Krumweide’s the opposite of Soderbergh’s most famous rebel with a cause—Erin Brockovich. Where Brockovich was a vigilante hero, a reckless whistleblower trying to expose authority figures as corrupt and destructive, Krumweide’s anti-authoritarian quest is foolish, dangerous, and greatly disruptive to honorable, hard-working leaders. While he encourages everyone to seek out the truth for themselves, he does so with no thought to the consequences of the public rage he’s fueling.

The film’s most discomforting bit of humor comes as Mitch tries to keep his teen daughter’s hormones in check. Her affection for a neighbor boy could lead to something disastrous—like holding hands, or a kiss. Apparently, it’s a good thing when a father tells his daughter to strive for “abstinence” when this virus is out there. (But if this had been any other American family drama, the adult probably would have portrayed as a prude and a fool for daring to suggest to his teenage daughter that setting boundaries with her boyfriend might be a good idea.)

As I think back through the film’s tapestry of stories, wishing they had been more satisfying, I’m more and more convinced that Soderbergh didn’t want stories so much as a study. Unlike so many films about world-threatening outbreaks, there’s no love story that becomes our focus, no Tom Cruise hero just trying to keep his family together until some unlikely heroics save the day.

And there’s no gratuitous sermonizing. The mystery of how the virus begins has all of us sifting the details of every scene for clues to the cause and the solution. But the revelation of where it came from is as depressing as anything else, because we’re denied the scapegoat we want so badly. We aren’t allowed the pleasure of blaming anybody, not even ourselves. It just happened. There is no “we did this to ourselves” moral to the story. This movie isn’t even aiming to teach us how to prevent or prepare for such an epidemic. It’s really about the disease, the fear it inspires, the science of fighting it, and the hard work of maintaining order as it spreads. As a reminder that a single gust of panic can bring down civilization like a house of cards, it works.

If Contagion has “teachable moments,” they’re about the importance of responding under pressure with reason, diligence, decency, and love. Its few moments of grace come when characters put themselves at risk for the greater good—in the courageous self-denial and sacrifice of those who love their neighbors as much or more than themselves. You expect that in a film like this. But there’s something comforting about how this movie’s casual way of depicting goodness; there’s no fanfare, no piety. It almost makes you believe that compassion and decency might be easy, and even common.

But what about faith? Apparently the screenwriters have very little interest in the role of religion during such ordeals. Remarkable, since most of us think about it quite a bit when things go as wrong as this. And thus, there  is no consolation regarding the devastation depicted here… only the hope that science will bring the monster down before the credits roll.

Since the characters have no faith but a faith in science, the movie is ultimately more unsettling than inspiring. Its news-footage authenticity is powerfully persuasive. From my seat in the middle of the theater, I noticed people getting tense and laughing uncomfortably whenever another moviegoer coughed or sneezed.

And—I am not making this up—I started feeling heavy-headed and achey during the movie, and by the end credits I had a sore throat. I called in sick the next day and stayed in bed with hot mugs of lemon and honey. This led to jokes with friends about the movie’s excellent “viral marketing.”

But for all of the talk about the film’s “relevance” and “timeliness,” I really can’t help but suspect that there’s another reason this film grabs its audience so swiftly and powerfully. Was it really the authenticity that has us all gasping in dismay? Or does it trouble us more because it parades so many familiar cultural icons across the screen and then strips them—the gods and goddesses of popular culture—of all their razzle-dazzle, all their immortality, and reduces them to pale, helpless, twitching bodies?

Has any big screen image in recent years been so astonishing to an audience than the spectacle of the radiant Gwyneth Paltrow being stripped of all her glory and glamour, reduced to a virus-spewing sicko with puffy eyes and mussed hair, sprawled in spasms on her own kitchen floor? If a simple virus can be the cause of that, only God can save us now.

  • http://www.wilfordlauren.tumblr.com Lauren Wilford

    “This is Marion Cotillard, and our time in her presence is precious!” :) Agreed. 
    Good thoughts. Really holistic in your examination of what the movie does. And that’s a very literary way to describe the phenomenon of “going ugly”, your erstwhile name for it. 

  • Ryan Holt

    “But the revelation of where it came from is as depressing as anything
    else, because we’re disallowed any opportunity to blame anyone. You
    can’t say that it’s “our fault.” It just is. There is no “we did this to
    ourselves” sermonizing.”

    I thought of the end of the film as more of a statement than you did. But then again, I had read the NYT article (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/movies/all-star-cast-for-steven-soderberghs-contagion.html), and it had this section in it:

    “CONTAGION does, however, advance the longstanding view — as old as the
    Bible, and in this case, scientifically sound — of plagues as
    essentially punitive. Numerous studies have linked the origin of viruses
    to ecological transgressions like climate change
    and the loss of natural habitats. ‘This is more frightening to me than
    if it has to do with a conspiracy or something from outer space,’ Mr.
    Burns said. ‘This is about the process of us being alive and sharing the
    planet.’”

    So that was in the back of mind as I went into the film.

    • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

      I didn’t see the ending as depressing *or* as any sort of statement; it basically just depicted what the film had already told us. What the ending provided, as I saw it, was *closure*, because it allowed us to live in that moment (complete with a “Day 1″ subtitle, like all the other days had had) rather than simply rely on our collective reconstruction of what had happened.

      (And of course, even the fact that we could reconstruct what had happened meant that we, as an audience, were in a privileged position that none of the movie’s characters were: Fishburne knows which two species created the virus, but does he know who spread it to everyone? Cotillard knows who the first victim of the virus was, but does she know where it came from? Damon knows — or suspects — that his wife’s infidelity may have played a part in spreading the disease, but does he know which way the transmission went? Etc., etc., etc.)

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    No religious consolation? I seem to recall that the film shows nuns stepping in and tending to the first responders when the nurses’ union goes on strike. (We also get a glimpse of what seems to be a Christian school somewhere in rural China, though I don’t think this anything to do with the epidemic or the responses thereto.)

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      That we glimpse religious folks providing some comfort does not mean that the film is interested in them. I don’t even remember the moment you’re talking about, which may just be my fault (maybe I was scribbling in my notebook and missed it). But I suspect it’s because the moment was treated as incidental, not significant. Is the relevance or role of faith given any real attention in the film?

      • S.K

        Religion was shown to be abandoned in one of the scenes. For a couple of seconds we were shown the inside of a mosque in India, most probably. It was empty. Showing that the disease had created so much fear in the minds of people that they abandoned even the usual respite of religion.

  • Nick

    I’m struggling to come to terms with whether Contagion is quietly effective horror or muted (flat?) storytelling – in a nihilistic sort of way. Perhaps it is both, but I’m conflicted about how to feel about it.

    The film, like the virus, seems to lack underlying purpose. No moment feels more significant than another. The end highlighted the virus’s centrality to the film for me (over and above any of the characters). And, yet, is there not a purposeful ontology that is over and above the virus? A Narrative that imbues even our most calamitous narratives? Or would this detract from the horror of it? Hope feels implausible here.

    And, yet, perhaps the flatness is fitting with the virus’s centrality in a way not unlike Coppola’s flatness is fitting with Johnny Marco’s aimlessness.

  • Alexsees

    I was with you until “radiant Gwyneth Paltow being stripped of all her glory and glamor”.  She average looking, at best.  I’ve never understood how anyone looks at her and thinks “glorious” or “radiant”.  She’s not a bad actress, mind you, just plain.

  • OneMoreThought

    One interesting thing about the Jude Law character is his effect on the films politics. By having an “information-wants-to-be-free” chap as the biggest villain, the film seems to make a very conservative, or at least anti-libertarian, anti-far-left statement. After all, it is the honorable (if imperfect) people working through the government systems who bring the virus down, and the paranoid reformer whose protest rhetoric hides selfishness and moral weakness.