Daniel W. Drezner

How well does Contagion “get” the global governance of catastrophe?

Your humble blogger went to see Contagion over the weekend for two reasons.  First, Slate movie critic Forrest Wickman concluded his review by calling it, "the most believable zombie movie ever made." He’s not the only one to make the zombie connection, and well, now I’ve got some skin in that game.  Second, the FP ...

Your humble blogger went to see Contagion over the weekend for two reasons.  First, Slate movie critic Forrest Wickman concluded his review by calling it, "the most believable zombie movie ever made." He’s not the only one to make the zombie connection, and well, now I’ve got some skin in that game.  Second, the FP editors have asked me to review other disaster scenarios, so I figured I’d just pre-empt their request and join the legions of moviegoers who get their ya-yas seeing Gwyneth Paltrow die on film be entertained. 

So, let me provide the MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT klaxon here and get to the assessment.  How well did Steven Soderbergh and company portray what would happen if a lethal pandemic were to break out? 

OK, good news first:  in terms of both accuracy and suspense, Contagion is a far, far better film than, say, either Outbreak or The Andromeda Strain.  The first reason is that Soderbergh does not bother with the anti-government paranoia that those earlier films possessed in their DNA.  Instead, the treatment of the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Homeland Security, and World Health Organization officials is fair.  They are depicted as flawed but well-meaning bureaucrats, getting some decisions right and some wrong.  They also speak in jargon, a surprising amount of which makes its way into the film.  I fully expect to see the term "R-0" bandied about by news anchors the next time a flu bug breaks out.  A CDC official utters the two most chilling words in the entire movie — "social distancing" — to describe the necessary freak-out by citizens to avoid human contact with other humans as a way of slowing the spread of the virus.  That’s the perfect dash of bureaucratese. 

The second reason is that Soderbergh almost perfectly nails the first stage of the pandemic.  Unlike, say, most zombie or other apocalyptic films, Soderbergh doesn’t get to the breakdown of social order in the first reel.  He takes his time, which helps to amp up the pressure and make it seem all the scarier when things do seem to break down (Matt Damon’s character is the perfect vessel here; Damon’s best work is in his reaction shots to other people behaving badly).  He also deftly demonstrates in the first ten minutes how globalization would abet the spread of any kind of superbug. 

Despite this slow ratcheting up, I haven’t seen a director kill off so many Hollywood starlets since Joss Whedon. 

The third reason is that the movie, intriguingly enough, does not end in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Consistent with the arguments I made in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, humans prove to be just as adaptable as the biological threats to humans. 

That said, here are my beefs: 

1)  Really, the blogger is the Big Bad in the movie?  Really?  The villian of the piece is Jude Law’s crudely-named Alan Krumwiede, who detects the spread of the virus early but hawks a homeopathic remedy to enrich himself.  Exactly how he gets rich doing this is not entirely clear — he has some shady meetings with a hedge fund manager, but it’s not entirely clear why, after gaining fame and fortune, he doesn’t start acting differently as more attention gets paid to him.  It’s also presumed that Krumwiede has the monopoly of blogging on the issue — I’m pretty sure that as he gained popularity, a few other health bloggers would try to cut him down to size. 

Neither Soderbergh nor his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns like bloggers, like, at all.  At one point the virologist played by Elliott Gould tells Krumwiede, "Blogging is not writing.  It’s graffiti with punctuation."  Hah!  That shows what Soderbregh knows — us bloggers are lucky if we remember to use commas, much less semicolons.  

Look, as a founding member of the International Brotherhood of Policy Bloggers, I can’t claim that actors like Krumwiede don’t exist.  My skepticism is over whether they’d really wreak as much havoc as Soderbergh thinks.  Myths and rumors can spread on the Internet, but so can the corrections of those myths.  In the end, someone like Krumwiede would affect a very narrow, already paranoid subculture — the larger effect would be minimal. 

Even if Krumwiede is an absurd villain, I also didn’t buy it when the DHS official let him go free once he made bail.  At a minimum, they’d hold this guy for 48 hours without charging.  I’d also wager that they’d try to deport him too. 

One final note:  I’d love to see Lee Siegel hire Sodebergh to direct and Aaron Sorkin to write a movie about the Internet, just to see the final dystopic product. 

2)  Where the hell is the Chinese central government?  The most absurd subplot is when a WHO official gets abducted by her translator as collateral to protect his infected village.  She’s held hostage for at least six months — during which time she goes native — until the WHO barters some (fake) vaccine for her life. 

Apparently during this entire time, the Chinese central government does not bother to intervene to try to rescue her.  This seems juuuuuuust a bit implausible.  It also leads to the next problem….

3)  Where the hell is the rest of the WHO?  Beyond Marion Cotillard’s character, the WHO does not really appear in the film.  It’s the CDC’s show, and only their show .  They act in Contagion pretty much how they promised they would act if the zombies arrive.  Maybe that’s how things would play out, but I suspect other governments and IGOs would still matter more than this film suggests.  Given that the movie virus started in China, and that the head of the WHO is also from China, they might be useful in this kind of situation. 

4)  Few second-order effects.  The virus leads to looting, crime, and other social ills, but I wish they had said something about the total economic devastation that would have occurred.  At one point after a vaccine has been developed, Matt Damon’s character walks through a mall to buy his daughter a prom dress — and 80% of the mall looks to be closed.  Soderbergh suggests a bunch of unions going on strike because they don’t want to ge sick.  I’m curious what happens once they find themselves unemployed as well.   

Forget the domestic discord however, there’s also…

5)  No international conflict whatsoever.  After the first 15 minutes, almost all of the action takes place in the USA.  Once a vaccine is discovered, there is no discussion of the international wrangling that would take place over scarce supplies.  No diversionary wars happen.  And so forth.  Soderbergh doesn’t really address possible problems in world politics.  Because of this, the film implicitly assumes a liberal institutionalis kind of a world.  I hope he’s right, but I’m not so sure myself.   

To be fair to Soderbergh and his collaborators, I’m not sure it’s possible to get everything right in such a film.  Unless it’s a television series I’m not sure it’s possible to get all the nuances and complexities right.  Given these limitations, Contagion is a movie worth seeing.  Just bring your own Purell

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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