I’ve received some (I think fair) complaints about spoilers in this post, so consider it a spoiler warning. I should note, and this will be true for reviews here on out, that I consider a “review” label to signal that here there (may) be spoilers. I assume you guys read these pieces as table-setters for discussion, and I post them on Friday when I do so they will be there over the weekend and available for discussion as folks see things.
Contagion Steven Soderbergh’s stylish and beautifully-acted ensemble horror movie has as its main villain a virus, but in a larger sense, it’s a perfect September 11 movie. Even as the characters scramble to address an untraceable global threat that transcends state borders and agency jurisdictions and marginal figures get rich spewing hate, the movie reaffirms a strong faith in human decency and innovation.
The movie’s villain is Jude Law at his creepy best as a conspiracy-oriented blogger who is anointed as a prophet when his paranoia hits pay dirt — he’s one of the first people outside of government to notice a pattern of illnesses that signals an epidemic. But he parlays that fame into huge profits by declaring forsythia a miracle cure, garnering a windfall for the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture it, and urging his readers not to take a vaccine when one becomes available. It’s a sickening portrait of vaccine denialism — a phenomenon that’s already causing spikes in childhood illnesses in the United States, and that could be catastrophic in a global pandemic. He’s also an illustration of the power of the blogosphere, one I wish had been tempered by a more reasonable figure. “Print media is dying, Lorraine,” he hollers at an editor who refuses to print his initial story about the epidemic, “I’ll save you a seat on the bus.” But even if I feel optimistic about the blogosphere, it’s undeniable that conspiracy theories widely disseminated can damage our national life, whether they make us sick or perpetuate lies about the causes of the September 11 attacks.
But Law’s reptilian blogger isn’t the only culprit. There are the Minnesota government officials who don’t want to issue warning for fear of disrupting the Thanksgiving shopping season, then complain about the cost of measures to care for the sick. Homeland Security officials jump to assume that the country’s under attack, even though, as Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) explains, “Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are doing that.” Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle in a role that would make her a star in America if there were justice in pop culture) bows to pressure and tries to shut down promising scientific research because it risks making the full extent of the virus public in a way that might cause a panic — fortunately, her competitor persists. Unions even show up as a minor bugaboo. “We have insurance issues with our employees, our union, not to mention the health of mourners,” a mortician tells Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) when he refuses to take his wife’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) body after she becomes the virus’ first victim. Later, law enforcement breaks down as officers stop showing up for work, the Teamsters shut down trucking, nurses call a work stoppage, though Cheever is sympathetic to their plight, explaining that “there’s nothing they can do. They’re putting sick people next to healthy people.” Overwhelmed by a new and unexpected threat, the institutions of government and non-governmental organizations don’t always behave admirably.
But despite their failures, the movie insists that acts of human generosity will prevail and help us survive even the worst threat. Ally, aware that the normal cycle of human trials is too slow to get a vaccine in production in time to save billions of people, tests one on herself, then exposes herself to her ill father. “Dad, you’re here because you stayed in your practice treating sick people after everyone else went home,” she tells him, explaining why she’s taking the risk. Cheever gives up his own vaccine to someone else. Mitch, who loses both his wife and his stepson, becomes a somewhat domineering father to his surviving teenage daughter, but helps her survive and thrive. Small acts of decency and courage have profound consequences. The end of the movie might be a little slack, an apocalypse averted and just about everyone home safe — even if they don’t entirely deserve it. But on the 10th anniversary of September 11, I understand the desire to believe that we can survive worse, and that we can do it together.