Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is Patient Zero in “Contagion,” the new movie about a viral epidemic/pandemic, that is directed by Steven Soderbergh. Why Beth has to have a backstory of infidelity is something I cannot explain and, given her brief time on film, I don’t feel the need to shout “Spoiler Alert!.” The rest of the film seems to pay no attention to that plot point (and multiple others), either. Why we had to be told that Gwyneth would die in the trailer for the film is another good question. (Never a good idea to give away all the good stuff in the trailer.)
It doesn’t matter, in the overall scheme of things, because Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns still do a good job of ratcheting up the tension of this all-star cast in a movie with the tag-line, “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone.” (This is my normal state, so that part did not panic me.) The scenes of a panicked public gone mad and the adolescent romance between Mitch’s (Damon’s) daughter and her boyfriend reassure us that humanitarianism is not dead and things will return to normal…eventually.
The cast includes such luminaries as Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears, who helps fight the outbreak of the mysterious virus; Matt Damon as Beth’s husband Mitch; Laurence Fishbourne as Dr. Ellis Cheever, head CDC operative; Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonara Orantes, a French physician assisting with the fight; Elliott Gould as Dr. Ian Sussmann, who is an eccentric lone wolf researcher; Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede, an aggressive blogger; and Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) as Lyle Haggerty, representing the government. [I couldn’t help myself: I half-expected Cranston’s character to offer the suffering natives some crystal meth when things got really bleak. Which they did almost immediately.]
Origins of the Epidemic
Beth Emhoff travels to Hong Kong and, because “Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat,” her meal in a casino has unintended consequences not only for her, but for the entire world. Lines like, “It’s hard to know what it is without knowing where it came from” and “It kills every cell we put it in” are not encouraging. Rhesus monkeys must endure additional indignities in order to save mankind (“First we shoot them into space and them we shoot them full of a virus.”) Ultimately, as the plot has it, “We have a virus with no antidote.” This is not good and every cough, whether on celluloid or in the crowded theater, resonates with the audience. It especially resonated for me when my seat mate’s wife said he had been feeling sick all week and the tattooed seatmate began wiping his dripping nose on his hand. (eeeuuuwww).
Historical Basis for Epidemic Plot : Spanish Flu, Swine Flu, Polio, Bird Flu
I used to listen to my mother talk about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which killed 1% of the world’s population. Mom was born in 1907, so she was 11 years old when some class members in her small school in Hospers, Iowa, failed to show up for class. When she went to her friends’ houses to find out where they were that day, she learned that they would never again be coming to school. Or anywhere else. The youngsters had died of the deadly Spanish flu. Paranoia (and school closings) mounted as the death toll rose.
I also remember the closing of public swimming pools in the days before Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine in 1955, a time when I was approximately the same age as my mother during the Spanish flu scare. My best friend’s mother died of polio after lingering in an iron lung. Neighbors would not even make contact with the victim’s family at the door, but simply left the funeral food on the front step and ran. Even as recently as “W’s” administration in 2009, there were swine flu concerns, and the H5N1 bird flu still remains dangerous and capable of causing a pandemic, according to scientists.
Societal Breakdown: Crowd Psychology
The most interesting part of the film, for me, was how society breaks down when faced with a crisis of this proportion. It becomes every man (or woman) for him or her self. Even the do-gooders (nuns, nurses, volunteers) are overrun and pushed aside as food runs short and the supply of what may (or may not) be a palliative measure—a homeopathic treatment known as Forsythia—runs short. It took me right back to my Sociology classes and the studies on crowd psychology.
Political Echoes of Strident Tea Party-like Activists
In today’s climate, I couldn’t help but think of the strident followers of some political elements, those who think that “he who yells the loudest wins the argument” and are overly proud of their membership in the NRA. I could really imagine those individuals leading the charge to break in to pharmacies to take the drug everyone thinks will make their family safe, or launching aggressive measures to find out where the doctors (who get the drug first) might live, in order to break in and steal same. All this plays out in the film.
One nice humanitarian touch was the “regular guy” played by Oscar-nominee John Hawkes (Uncle Teardrop in “Winter’s Bone,” whose birth name in Alexandria, Minnesota was John Perkins). Hawkes’ character has an ADD son and asks the head doctor (Laurence Fishbourne as Dr. Ellis Cheever) for advice, early on. Cheever says it is out of his area of expertise, but he knows it’s treatable and he can recommend someone in the field. Later, Cheever will personally see that the boy is inoculated. Humanitarianism lives on.
Nevertheless, we are told by Bryan Cranston’s character that Dr. Cheever is going be brought up on charges because he let his new bride in on a secret: the severity of the epidemic. He urged her to evacuate Chicago (which is embargoed) despite being sworn to secrecy. He wanted her to make a run for Atlanta, where the CDC (Center for Disease Control) is located. The scripted line is, “They’re looking for a scapegoat. You just made it easy.”
It is little old meth-maker Bryan Cranston, the government stooge, who informs Cheever that his neck is still on the chopping block, late in the film. Again, this plot strand was about as needless and disconnected to the plot’s thrust as the personal information about Gwyneth which was shared early in the film. I write fiction. I know how it goes. You insert an idea, intending to integrate that plot thread later on, but other things intrude, get in the way, or seem more important and the planted seed never grows or fluorishes. That was my biggest complaint about the film: dropped plot conceits that are never fully fleshed out or finished off.
The film is otherwise quite riveting, intense and educational. It is hard to care too deeply about characters who drift through as quickly as pedestrians caught in a giant revolving door, but the main idea (i.e., man’s vulnerability to forces outside his control) sticks with you, propels the film and holds your interest for the duration. After all, it’s almost cold and flu season. In fact, when I sat down next to that tattooed man with 3 others and his wife leaned around and said, “Don’t get too close to him. He’s been sick” it put me on high alert. I still don’t know if this was her idea of a joke (she seemed serious), but watching him subsequently blow his nose on his hand (!) didn’t do much for my popcorn-eating and I refused to move my paper cup full of Coca Cola to the left cup holder nearest this stranger. From that point on, every cough, every sniffle was part of my experience of the film.
A third plot point that disrupted the smooth flow of the movie was Jude Law’s character of Alan Krumwiede. First of all, with a surname like “Krumwiede,” chances are that Jude isn’t going to be “the good guy,” although, at first, we think he is. He is an aggressive blogger who breaks the story and helps it go wide before the government would like word to get out. I found Jude Law somewhat extraneous in “Road to Perdition” and he is again extraneous here, except to point out that, in times of peril, there are people who profit mightily from the misfortune of others and it has ever been thus.
n this day and age of Wiki Leaks and Julian Assange, Jude is Julian. Unfortunately, that is another sub-plot that does not seem all that well-integrated into the main storyline. It almost seems that the script wants Jude to function as the “surprise twist” in a plot that is otherwise pretty straightforward in showing how doctors are not “Jesus in a lab coat” and in explaining in riveting detail how a virus like MEV1, (the fictional virus of the film), could well cause widespread death and disruption in a very short time, spreading to as many as one in 12 with 25 to 30% attrition by Day 26.
Earlier Film Precedents
The film is light years better than Dustin Hoffman stumbling around as Colonel Sam Daniels in 1995’s “Outbreak” (he looked ridiculous in that suit) and is better compared to 1971’s “The Andromeda Strain,” which had Michael Crichton as one of the screenwriters. Soderbergh vaulted to stardom at age 26 with “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (featuring a then very thin James Spader) and regained his early form with 1998’s “Out of Sight.” In 2000, he earned a Best Director Oscar for “Traffic” and also directed Julia Roberts to her Oscar in “Erin Brockovich.”
It’s been 10 years since “Ocean’s Eleven” and Soderbergh, who suggested to Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that after his next 3 films he is going to take some major time off. However, he wanted to do “Contagion” because, he said, “It felt ‘zeitgeisty’ to me in the same way that ‘Traffic’ did when we were making it…that there was something in the air. In this case, literally.” The political tone of angry mobs in this film is not coincidental. As Covert said in his review of the film, “‘Contagion’ plays like a parable of a stricken body politic. The film describes an America where confusion and fear explode when things get crazy, where ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.”
So, see it for its medical information and pay attention the backstory and try not to criticize overmuch the lost thread plots that seemed like good ideas when they were first thrown into the mix.