Pop Culture Under a Microscope

So many stars, so little to say

I love a good outbreak movie.  I love the way their sensationalism illuminates cultural fears and quaintly points to the scapegoats of the moment.  What are we blaming for our social ills this week?  Sexual wantonness?  Foreigners?  Scientific hubris?  Africa?

As it turns out, what makes Contagion unique is its refusal to be sensational.  The film follows an outbreak which begins when a woman from Minneapolis (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home from a business trip to Hong Kong with an unexpected souvenir—a new deadly virus—and quickly infects nearly everyone she comes in contact with.  We see exactly nothing about her relationships with her husband or her family before the woman is suddenly dead, along with her young son immediately after her, and the scope of the film widens to include the army of professionals who are orchestrating a response to the disease: a WHO epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard), various employees of the CDC, a private researcher (Elliott Gould), etc.  Though we continue to follow Matt Damon, who plays the grieving husband of Paltrow’s index patient, the film is less about the horror of the epidemic than the response to it by medical and governmental authorities.

Though the virus moves quickly, the film does not.  Sober and deliberate, the film is like a checklist for each step of the response as it develops.  In a sense, this is the film’s greatest strength, but it is also where it stumbles: though the public becomes hysterical, the viewer is made to identify with the necessary coldness of the experts who navigate that hysteria in order to contain the disease, partly because that coldness is mirrored in the tone and focus of the film, which avoids sentimentalizing even its central “heroes,” suggesting that sentimentality is the enemy of successful control.  So far so good, but with only the barest of character development and rather broad procedural strokes, the experience of the film is rather cold for viewers as well.  And though the pace of Contagion may be deliberate, the film is far from meticulous: despite its focus on process, it reveals its major breakthroughs only after they’ve occurred off-screen, and we are neither given details of what the accomplishments required nor let in on the private motivations of those who achieved them (something which has often stood in for scientific specificity in films such as this).  This lack of detail, made more or less necessary by the sheer number of characters the film follows, can be maddening.

In the absence of melodrama, characterization, science, and narrative detail, I found it a little hard to discern what the film was getting at.  Though it indulges in a hint of old-fashioned slut-shaming with Paltrow’s character, who has slept with an old boyfriend during a layover on her trip, the film mostly restrains from moralizing to explain the danger we’re in; and aside from a few painful, nonsensical proclamations (e.g., “We don’t have to weaponize the bird flu—the birds are already doing that”), it resists irrational alarmism.  For a time, the film seems to be building toward an indictment of government agencies such as the CDC, suggesting corruptibility by corporate money and personal interests, but when the character who represents this viewpoint is suddenly and utterly undermined, it becomes unclear whether there exists a point at all.  Not that this is unusual for Soderbergh — Traffic pulled its punches to the point of being insulting, and the Ocean’s films were barely veiled masturbation; don’t even get me started on the confused “feminism” of Erin Brockovich.   The man is intent on making “serious” films (you can tell by his filters that he means business), but he is allergic to actually saying anything (which, you know, might offend someone).  More than anything, Contagion seems to be a feature-length vote of confidence in our government and its agencies: while the lay-public falls into panic and chaos, it is the wise and selfless experts at the CDC and elsewhere that will save our society from destruction in the face of disaster.  Which, you know, is fine. I sort of like the idea that the film is a response to the Tea Party, dramatizing the need for government spending.  But that’s probably wishful thinking. More likely, it’s another well-made but witless Soderbergh attempt to bring a highly stylized genre under the tent of Serious Film.

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