Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Contagion (2011)

I find few horror movie “monsters” more frightening than the virus or disease epidemic. I suppose this is so because of the unpleasant reality underlining this particular boogeyman. 

Less than a hundred years ago, in 1918, for example, the flu pandemic killed millions of people, some three-to-five percent of the human population. 

And in recent years we have all watched with horror -- and then relief -- as SARS, H1N1 and Ebola burned out before doing real damage to our communities and our families.

In the tradition of efforts such as The Andromeda Strain (1972), and Outbreak (1995), Steve Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) depicts a terrifying scenario in which a new “bug,” originating in Hong Kong, threatens the future itself.

Unlike those aforementioned films, however -- which are largely set in isolated, quarantined towns or laboratories -- Contagion attempts to paint a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional picture of a pandemic.

The film depicts the spread of the disease globally, and gazes at the responses by the medical community, various governments, the media, average people, and so forth.  The film’s events span 130 or so days of the pandemic, and as that time passes, viewers witness the break-down of infra-structure and civilization, and the rise of paranoia and hatred. 

Soderbergh is especially good at conveying the details of this collapse in imagery. As the film progresses, we see ever more garbage lining the streets, but nobody ever explicitly comments on it. The visual tells the story: order is breaking down. 

Contagion features a large, diverse, ensemble cast, multiple locations, and a sense of accelerating, relentless inevitability. Again and again, we watch as an effort to stop the spread of the pandemic fails, and as scientists analytically predict how many people will die, per day, from exposure and infection.  

The movie is grim, and yet not exploitative (save for one shot of Gwyneth Paltrow’s face during an autopsy).  In short, this is a "what if" scenario brought to life with intelligence, reason, and restraint. 

Unlike many films of this type, Contagion doesn’t end with the fall of man, the destruction of civilization, or doomsday, but rather with the long, difficult crawl back from the precipice.  And it has no illusions-- or cynicism, for that matter -- about human nature, either.  Contagion characterizes even its strongest, most heroic characters as fallible humans who, above all else, seek to help and preserve their own families.  In these men and women, we can see ourselves, and that’s the movie’s point, I suppose.  

Contagion succeeds not just because it is driving and riveting, but because it all seem so plausibly imagined and rendered.  There but for the grace of God go we...

“Don’t want to catch a cold…”

A corporate employee and family woman, Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), returns home to Minneapolis from a trip to Hong Kong, with a lay-over in Chicago. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), is shocked when an apparent cold turns into something much worse, and Beth dies in the hospital, along with his step-son, Carl. 

At the same time, across the globe, others begin to die from this mystery illness, including a bus rider in Japan, and a woman in London. Like Beth, they all seem to have traveled from Hong Kong recently.

A blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), catches wind of the disease’s progression, and after being unable to interest a major newspaper in the story, begins reporting it online. He soon comes to believe that the Powers-that-Be are suppressing the truth about the illness, its spread, and even its cure.

The head of the CDC in Atlanta, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) mobilizes resources as the disease -- designated MEV-1 -- spreads rapidly to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities. Cheever sends Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) to manage the crisis in Minneapolis, but she is soon infected with the disease herself. 

As work frantically begins on a vaccine, civilization starts to break down. Funeral homes will no longer accept bodies of the infected dead, firemen stop reporting to put out fires, nurses strike, and garbage begins to line metropolitan streets.

The death toll climbs into the millions, and Krumwiede comes to believe that the CDC is stalling, rewarding friends of the Administration with lucrative contracts and vaccines, while the majority of the world’s population simply die…

“It’s the biggest shopping weekend of the year.”

Structurally and stylistically, Contagion looks much like a 1970s sci-fi tech thriller (The Andromeda Strain) and a disaster film.  The film hops from location to location, but always with a familiar face vetting the crisis so that there is a personal, individual element to the storytelling. Yet what works best about the story is not the grand canvas, but Soderbergh’s steadfast resistance to hysteria.  He makes a film with “real” characters bracing a terrifying, but again, reality-based situation, and doesn’t try to play it in an exploitative fashion.

One sign of the director’s even-handedness is seen in relation to Laurence Fishburne’s character, Cheever, at the CDC. Cheever is an effective leader, and is doing his best to save everyone.  But at a critical junction, he provides classified inside information to his fiancée, Aubrey (Sonia Lathaan), thus proving Krumwiede’s theory that those “in the know” are working to save their loved ones, while others -- lacking that personal connection -- are left to fend for themselves.  

How are we to judge this act?

Cheever is in no way a bad man, and one can easily understand why he makes the choice he does, but it is it fair?  Is it fair that those who are “connected” should get the benefit of insider information and privilege?  Probably not, but the reason that people push forward in the face of tremendous odds and an implacable enemy is also a personal one. They want to save those they love.

Cheever's "corruption" (or heroism, depending on your perspective) is just one avenue by which the film attempts to examine every aspect of an epidemic, from the political to the moral, to the personal.   
Another way involves Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a physician who is kidnapped in Hong Kong and held for ransom until the survivors of a decimated small village can be given the vaccine.  

Is it right to demand the vaccine using force and such terror tactics?  No, of course not.  

But the village has suffered an inordinate amount, and there is no guarantee that the vaccine will get to the survivors on time.  The villagers, and their representatives therefore act in an anti-social way to save the community and its very heritage. How this subplot ends is tragic, and deeply affects Dr. Orantes. Our sense of law and justice dictates that those who would use hostages and terror should not benefit from it, and yet there are innocent children in that village. Those who acted anti-socially were trying to save their families; the same way Cheever tried to save his.  

Another affecting story involves Damon's character. He is informed of his wife's death by a hospital doctor, and the news doesn't even register. He brought Beth into the hospital for the equivalent of the flu, and now she's dead.  Mitch doesn't even "hear" those words, and when forced to listen, grows understandably angry.  It's a very realistic reaction.

Yet the quality I admired about the film is that it proves that our system -- our civilization -- works. It doesn’t work all at once, and a lot of people die. But the mechanisms in place to help -- from the medical community to the political community to the military -- ultimately enact a procedure that is about as fair as is  humanly possible, given our limitations and problems as a species.

A National Vaccine Lottery is established so that the vaccine -- of limited quantities -- will go out to the people in a fair and democratic way.  And even Dr. Cheever attempts to make right his mistake f favoritism or nepotism by inoculating a young boy instead of himself.  

I once wrote that an act of self-preservation is that thing you do to protect yourself and your family. 

Civilization, by contrast, involves the act you undertake to save someone else’s family. Contagion understands and promotes this idea, and there are many characters in the film (including Dr. Mears) who put their lives on the line so that society, as a whole, will continue.  Their personal safety matters us much to them as ours does to us, and yet they take incredible risks to save other people's families.

On the other hand, the film features one unequivocal villain: the media.  Alan Krumwiede is a blogger who grows addicted to his “12 million hits” a day, and would rather sell paranoia than fact. He would rather put forward conspiracy theories than hard science.  

He is an opportunist who makes four million dollars peddling a cure -- Forsythia -- that doesn’t work, while people die. The movie is pretty hard on him, and rightly so. And though the admirable Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a CNN pundit, makes a cameo in Contagion, it would have been nice to see the media get the same even-handed treatment as the government, medical profession, and even political leaders.  

On the other hand, looking at the recent Ebola scare, I can't say the mainstream media comported itself particularly well. The disease was used as a political tool to invoke fear, basically, and win an election in November 2014. The ploy succeeded, but you wonder how some of those terror peddlers can continue to look themselves in the mirror after pandering to the fears of the uneducated and the uninformed.  

Unfortunately, the 24-hour cable-news stations have proven time and time again that, like Krumwiede, they are more interested in audience size than the public good. At some point, our nation will have to address this fact, head on and reform the media (hint: restore The Fairness Doctrine) or face the consequences.  But that's a story for another day.

Contagion starts with the sound of coughing -- a terrifying harbinger of the infection to come -- and closes in a kind of circular fashion.  After going from “Day 2” of the plague to “Day 132,” the movie ends with an effective coda…back at “Day 1.”  

This return to the beginning not only provides the answer to the mystery of Beth’s infection in Hong Kong, but reminds us that the whole cycle could start all over again, with another virus, and another pandemic. It happened in 1918.  It happened in the fictional world of this movie.  And the message of the filmmakers is...history could yet repeat itself.

What separates Contagion, finally, from so many “disease” sci-fi movies, is Soderbergh’s devotion to painting a realistic rather than hysterical picture. The characters in the film do their best to stop the march of the MEV-1 virus, but there are many failures, finally, because we all define “best” differently.  

When we do our best, is it what’s best for the village?  Best for our family?  Best for those we love and know?  Or best for the community at large?  

In the final analysis, are we about self-preservation or about civilization?  

This is no small issue, especially today. The anti-vaxxers have decided that because of their irrational fear of the government and vaccines, they will "protect" their children by not vaccinating them. Unfortunately, they are doing the opposite, and worse, endangering other families and children as a result of their irresponsibility. Under the guise of  individual "liberty," they are actually being extremely selfish.  They are thinking not about the common good at all.

Contagion provides some terrifying thoughts on this paradigm, and artfully explores the idea that "fear" and selfishness" are every bit as dangerous to human civilization as the spread of a new, unknown virus.

1 comment:

  1. Looking at how the Ebola virus was so politically peddled as a failure of leadership, I think that Soderbergh's take on the media was actually light. Almost benign considering that the it only depicted a lone blogger peddling the terror. When in reality, it would be corporate news entities that would be pushing the terror and fear. Reaching millions of Americans, the fear would be ten-fold as depicted in Contagion.
    Imagine that happening now, the terror and hate peddlers, Fox News, etc...would place all the blame on Obama, the Muslim, American-hating POTUS. Similarly, it would have been it's liberal counterpart, MSNBC, placing blame and inciting fear if it was a Republican POTUS. Extreme partisanship that America is mired in is not sustainable in a crisis of a magnitude such as depicted in Contagion.
    The process would only work if the American system of governance worked.....and it has not worked in quite some time.