When I saw Contagion in September of 2011, I was impressed but not quite knocked out by it. This was, I think, the general response to Contagion at the time. Reviews were largely positive and the returns at the box office were solid, but certainly not blockbuster.
I suspect there are two reasons for the film’s modest success. First, Steven Soderbergh’s story of the race to stop a global pandemic is told with clinical efficiency — there is no “go for the Oscar” scene for any member of its resplendent cast. Nor is there any of that “when things are at their worst, people are at their best” stuff you often find in films where the world is collectively facing one specific danger. Contagion is unsentimental to the bone. Even when a vaccine is produced, that success is delivered in a sober, bureaucratic fashion. The film simply has no interest in uplift.
Second, as the disease spreads like wildfire, and panic leads to hoarding, looting, and violence before the tanks come marching in, it may have seemed a little far-fetched to us at the time. It seemed firmly in the realm of fiction. It could never really happen to us.
So, despite being respectably reviewed and a financial success with a big name director and a parade of famous actors appearing throughout (there’s even a partial Talented Mr. Ripley reunion with Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, and Jude Law all in attendance), Contagion went unnoticed during awards season.
What a difference eight and a half years makes.
Because what may have seemed like science fiction then is playing out like a documentary now.
The COVID-19 pandemic is all here in Contagion. The description of a “novel” flu-like virus. The need for social distancing, self-quarantine, hand-washing and not touching your face (Kate Winslet’s CDC doctor tells a colleague the average person touches their face 3-5 times a minute) are all referenced early on. Then there’s the prescient understanding of human nature in the film: the way people turn to conspiracy, behave carelessly, become opportunists, and how those in power vacillate between helplessness and looking out for their own interests.
It’s a dark portrait Soderbergh paints, but, as it turns out, an accurate one.
Contagion begins on day two of the pandemic, which is, of course, when no one knows there’s going to be one. A young woman (Paltrow) is on a business trip in Asia and on returning to the U.S. presents flu-like symptoms. In short order, she comes home to her husband (Damon) in Minneapolis, gets worse, and suddenly dies.
Damon is remarkable in the hospital scene when the E.R. doctor tells him his wife is dead. Unable to digest the information, he asks the physician when he can see her. It’s both a subtle and heartbreaking depiction of what a mind can handle.
Then, just a few days later, their son dies too after suffering the same symptoms, and Damon’s whole life becomes protecting his daughter in an increasingly unsafe world.
Contagion is a true ensemble piece though. As significant as Damon’s storyline is, if there is a true “lead” in the film it’s probably Laurence Fishburne as a CDC official charged with containing the virus. Fishburne always projects great authority on film, which is why it’s so effective for Soderbergh to show him as so completely flummoxed by the complexity of the disease. It raises the stakes, because if Laurence Fishburne is nervous, how god damn bad is this?
As it turns out, it’s very bad. And not just because of the disease itself, but because of what people do when they are scared, or, as in the case of the morally bankrupt freelance journalist played by Jude Law (so loathsome he looks like he came to Contagion straight from the set of Road To Perdition), what an opportunist will do to take advantage of others being scared. And if Law’s character (who markets a false cure for personal gain) seems outlandish, I suggest you do a quick Google search of Jim Bakker or Alex Jones along with “coronavirus,” now.
All of this is playing out on our televisions. It’s happening on the internet, in our grocery stores, in our hospitals, and on our streets as I write this.
Hell, in some ways we may have it worse. In the movie at least, the government takes the threat seriously, builds extra hospitals, hires competent people, and overall at least seem to be trying. Conversely, our government’s incompetent response has only made a terrible situation worse.
I remember viewing Contagion’s depiction of the lock down of state borders, and the apparent declaration of martial law and thinking “well that seems a little over the top. We’d do better than that, wouldn’t we?”
How naive I was. Because right now, those images just seem like pictures we haven’t seen…yet.
Contagion saves its most terrifying reveal for the final scene as a title comes onscreen announcing “Day One.” A bulldozer is shown destroying the natural habitat of a bat, who awakens and takes flight over a factory farm. It leaves a dropping amidst a pack of swine. One particular pig takes interest and ingests it. That pig is taken to market, butchered, and sent to a casino restaurant. A chef is then seen preparing the pig in the kitchen, and is called out to take a picture with some Americans on a business trip. After a cursory wipe of his hands on his apron, the chef shakes hands with and puts his arm around a woman.
That woman is Gwyneth Paltrow.
In this moment, Soderbergh shows us that that through our gluttony, through our destruction of nature, and our vile management of our food sources, we aren’t merely unlucky.
We are at fault.