Contagion: Tiny germs vs. big government

Contagion: Tiny germs vs. big government

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

Aside from being about the most effective advertisement for Purell ever devised, Steven Soderbergh’s very good new film Contagion can also be read as an argument for the necessity of strong states and government intervention in an era of global threats.

The film begins with an American businesswoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow returning home from a business trip to China, bringing along a deadly new strain of bat-pig flu that quickly becomes an out-of-control epidemic, killing millions around the globe. It’s subtly suggested later in the film that Paltrow’s company may have inadvertantly played a role in the virus’ creation. ( Robin Cook’s November 2009 FP cover story sketches out a similar scenario.)

Soderbergh shifts genres in his career almost as quickly as the virus in the film mutates into ever-more-deadly forms, but Contagion could function as a companion piece to his drug war epic Traffic as entries in a form that could be called the globalization thriller — sprawling multi-character, multi-country examinations of a topical theme.

But the two movies, while structually similar, have a very different sensibility. Whereas the 2000 film took a skeptical view of the ability of the U.S. government to combata problem driven by economic necessity and human weakness — a failure personified by the hypocritical right-wing judge played by Michael Douglas — Contagion continually drills home the message that trained government officials are the only thing standing between us and the very scary things in the world. 

In her review of the film for the New York Times, Manhola Dargis  compares Contagion with paranoid 70s thrillers like All the President’s Men and the Parallax View, noting that “in the 1970s it was the government that played the villain while this time it’s on the side of right.”

Indeed the depiction of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization in the film is strikingly positive. When the strong arm of the state is represented by the photogenic trio of Marillon Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, and Kate Winslet selflessly putting their lives on the line to save others, who could say no? To the extent that these characters have any flaws, it’s that they’re too compassionate — Lawrence Fishburnce’s CDC director violates an information embargo to warn a loved one. 

When the officials in the film confine citizens or restrict their movements, it’s for their own good. When they conceal information, it’s completely understandable. (Though a good portion of the film takes place in China, there’s no discussion of the role that Beijing’s authoritarian secrecy played in worsening the 2003 SARS outbreak.)

In films like Traffic and Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh celebrated characters who stood up to state and corporate power. In the world of Contagion, the dangers posed by a world of unrestricted trade, travel, and environmental devastation, make state power a necessity. 

The only character in the film who questions whether the government really has people’s best interests at heart is the blogger portrayed by Jude Law. But rather than a Brockovichian hero, Law is a paranoid creep, raising nagging questions about the selfless officials who know best and putting people at risk. (Fishburne, at one point, suggests he may be a bigger threat than the virus itself.)

Stretch out Law’s English vowels into Australian ones and it’s not hard to picture Law’s character as a medical Julian Assange, disrupting the legitimate functioning of government by indiscriminately disseminating classified information. Indeed, the film suggests, the unfiltered nature of the Internet itself may make it unacceptably dangerous during a time of crisis. (“On the Internet? And you believe it?” Cotillard scoffs in one scene.)

As Dargis suggests, it’s hard not to see the film as a liberal Hollywood response to the anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party and this election cycle’s iteration of the Republican Party. It also may be pertinant that the word “contagion,” in recent political rhetoric, has referred less often to medical disease than to the spread of financial chaos from the U.S. housing market to the global economy. At a time when the role of government in regulating the economy is a major topic of debate, the film packs a metaphorical punch. 

Coming out of the weekend of 9/11, it’s also probably safe to say that this is a film that would not have been made under the Bush administration. Contagion may be very much the vision of a left-wing Hollywood director, but as a film that makes the case for granting the state extraordinary powers to  in order to combat an unseen, little understood, and highly-dangerous threat from abroad, it’s also a film Dick Cheney could love.