By Eric Plaag
When I read Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone in 1994, not only did it scare the pants off me to know that the Ebola virus had once actually escaped from a lab just a few miles away from where I then lived, but it convinced me that the day would one day come when a massive viral outbreak would take the world by storm with little warning and devastating consequences. Since then, we’ve been tortured by a host of movies capitalizing on this idea, some of them quite good—Twelve Monkeys (1995), 28 Days Later (2002), Cabin Fever (2002), Children of Men (2006)—some of them just plain godawful—Outbreak (1995), The Happening (2008)—and some of them really just a retread of the zombie theme, such as I Am Legend (2007). In each case, though, these films took the idea of a pandemic outbreak and played it out to apocalyptic ends, as if there is only general good health in the world or widespread calamity and chaos as a result of pandemic, with nothing in between.
Now, though, someone has figured out how to tackle the difficult terrain of the vast, ambiguous middle. In Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh leads us through the horrors of a pandemic marked not by flesh-eating bacteria or zombie-inducing monkeys or even a government conspiracy to kill off some target population somewhere on the planet. No, Soderbergh treads on the ground where those of us who exist in the real world are most likely to one day encounter a significant pandemic, beginning with the casual contact we engage in all the time with door knobs and commonly exchanged objects, infecting ourselves with one of the 2,000 finger touches we make to our face each day, and thereby contracting a disease that has already effectively killed us before we even know we are sick. There aren’t any exploding heads or necrotizing limbs in Soderbergh’s vision either; his virus kills us not through those viscerally compelling symptoms we see so often at the movies but through a cough, a fever, a vicious headache, and then seizures as our brains swell, encephalitis-style. Beginning with the Day 2 activities of the pandemic’s index patient, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow)—who you are hereby warned dies in the first ten minutes of the film—Soderbergh patiently and meticulously follows the reactions of various researchers and first responders, conspiracy theorists and normal citizens, as they search for the cause and see the effects of Beth’s illness and death over the ensuing year.
What Soderbergh has created is a film as insidious and methodical in its progression as the outbreak it tracks, and he ingeniously follows events from a detached perspective that leaves plenty of functional ambiguity about the motives and ethics of some of its key characters.
Central to this tension is Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an epidemiologist sent by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC to research the behaviors of those infected in several clusters that have sprouted all over the globe within the first few days. Mears’s research brings her in direct contact with Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), Beth’s cuckold of a husband who provides the first glimmer of hope for civilization when it becomes clear that he is infected but not ill, and wants only to do everything he can to save his daughter from being infected. Meanwhile, Cheever must defend himself against a host of accusations about impropriety, ranging from the concerns of Professor Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), a leading researcher on virus structures who is convinced that Cheever’s decision to shut down his research is because Cheever and the CDC want to control all potential profits from the virus’s inevitable vaccine, to the rantings of a British blogger (Jude Law) who insists that the US government is hiding the fact that forsythia is a viable natural treatment for the disease. Also in play are Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a WHO scientist held hostage by officials in Hong Kong who want the first vials of vaccine for their families, and Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), Cheever’s subordinate who parlays Sussman’s unauthorized breakthrough discoveries about the virus into a Nobel Prize-worthy vaccine.
What really works about Contagion is that all of its characters are human and believable—flawed each in his or her own way but also likable and worth rooting for (with the possible exception of a minor character from the Minneapolis Board of Health, whom I found myself hoping would get the disease sooner rather than later). In this sense, Soderbergh forces his audience to ask itself some staggeringly difficult questions about how it would behave in such circumstances: What would you sacrifice to save your family? Would you use power and position to your own advantage? Would you lie about risks and consequences in order to maintain peace? Would you put everything on the line in order to uncover the truth? These might read as rhetorical considerations, but in Contagion, Soderbergh’s handling of things makes them more palpable and disorienting than they might otherwise seem, and certainly not mere philosophical questions.
With 500 million infected and a mortality rate of 30%, Contagion’s virus is no minor concern, nor are the behaviors of crowds and governments worldwide in the wake of such calamity. Like no other outbreak film I can think of, Contagion shows us realistically the unexpected but essential ways in which society at large and our local communities would break down under such a threat, forcing us to choose between taking great personal risk to help each other or doing everything necessary to protect those we love from the horrors of mob mentality. In this sense, we begin to understand just how tenuous and fragile a thing the social contract always is, subject to the whims of a majority that might easily overwhelm a minority that tries to remain committed to doing the things that keep us civilized. I’ll not spoil how it all turns out, but as with everything else in this movie, its outcome is remarkably believable and balanced, infused with reminders that someone who should know better is always putting one over on someone else, while at the same time someone else is doing the right thing at great personal risk. Soderbergh doesn’t pick sides; he just reminds us that this tension, the yin-yang of this equation is always there in our every human interaction.
Theaters, 4 out of 5 stars