When the Fate of America is in the Hands of FEMA and Bingo Balls
A Film Review of Contagion
By: Lawrence Napoli
Disaster films are usually made with the intention of dazzling an audience with an epic scale of global destruction and loss of life that only the best CG artists and animators can deliver in the industry. The actual disaster (alien invasion, meteors, zombies, earthquakes, etc.) is a “macguffin” because the true purpose of these films is to test humanity’s strength of character (or lack thereof) when circumstances push people to the brink of sanity and composure. Contagion is a disaster film that is global in scope, but neither visually impressive nor particularly violent in any way. This film focuses on the drama of various authoritative perspectives that would be involved in handling worldwide calamity, and seeks out an authentic chain of events while sprinkling in a number of man-made complications to intensify the suspense. This is another of those “thinking” movies, so those desiring popcorn can get off the bus at the next stop. The rest of you are welcome to engage your intellect (and your paranoia) so as to appreciate a possible and somewhat probable pandemic that would leave the individual and society as a whole forever changed.
Scott Z. Burns wrote a screenplay that delivers the maximum level of intrigue from a multitude of isolated incidents, discussions and conflicts that bookends a global plague scenario from start to finish. Unfortunately, as the film is no more than 106 minutes in length, there is precious little character development, and therefore no real means for an audience to develop a sympathetic connection to the plight of these fictional people. The viewer is meant to absorb the drama from an everyman’s perspective, which I feel dilutes the experience because as personal as the various tragedies that all the characters are subjected to, none of them seem gut-wrenching and in some cases, almost deserved. This would perhaps be a different story if a hero was identified in the script, but that too is a concept which is purposely avoided to enhance the spectator realism of this “what if” scenario. In the real world, everyone may be a potential hero or villain, but no one is innocent and anyone can become a victim. As depersonalizing as this strategy is, it quite skillfully communicates the concept of fear, its effects on mob mentality and how humanity is more susceptible to it than any disease. The script’s true strength is in depicting moments where fear whittles the human psyche down to raw emotion which drives some people to acts of selfishness, while inspiring others to acts of selflessness. This is the most frightening aspect of the film because history has proven that we can all revert to cavemen instantly given the proper circumstances, and when chaos reigns, anything is possible, but the negative is likely.
Since characters come up a little short in connecting with the viewer, the ability to identify and appreciate themes is vital to appreciating the drama, but requires the viewer to be cognizant of history in order to effectively do so:
- Politics and economics will always sandbag pragmatism – American politics may have once stood for maintaining law and order, but nowadays it seems like it exists to be opportunistic in making sure the right people get their hands on the money. Contagion suggests precisely that when information control procedures administered by the WHO (World Health Organization) and CDC (Center for Disease Control) are not entirely altruistic in nature.
- The media spreads fear like wildfire – Americans are not too far removed from “red, orange and yellow terrorist alerts” to appreciate the effectiveness of this fact. Contagion demonizes the media in a cowardly fashion by placing the finger on independent digital media like bloggers and/or unpublished internet sources. Perhaps this film doesn’t even get made if a major network (even a fabricated one) is depicted as anything other than a useful distributor of “the news.”
- Xenophobia is part of the human condition – As much as people need each other, we don’t particularly trust each other and this only gets amplified when birds of different feathers flock together. If any individuals have any level of interaction with countries and cultures different from your own, do yourself a favor and at least learn the native language. Not only does it make base communication much easier, it can also protect you if push ever comes to shove.
- Bad things happen to good people – This goes without saying, and Contagion is no different from its disaster film brethren in suggesting that cutthroat desperation becomes the mob mentality by the general populace. Going out of your way to be a Samaritan/sucker doesn’t always yield mutual benefit, and frequently results in some form of punishment.
Steven Soderbergh is notorious for directing films that feature a multitude of A-list actors, and Contagion features a number of vignette performances by some of Hollywood’s best. Matt Damon as a guilt-stricken father provides the most emotional and compelling performance of the rest of the cast. Laurence Fishburne, once again, channels his inner Morpheus by masterfully personifying leadership, collectiveness and dignity as a director of the CDC in light of a dire situation. Jude Law capitalizes on his smarmy British attitude as an effectively arrogant and indignant internet blogger who reports on the outbreak with a conspiratorial agenda. Marion Cotillard as a WHO liaison to China is beautifully businesslike, but somewhat underused. Kate Winslet as a grassroots organizer for the CDC radiates the blue collar work ethic required in dealing with the frustrating politics of various public health departments from different states. Gwyneth Paltrow definitely gets the short end of the stick when it comes to screen time, and despite being relegated to a very specific role, she puts forth a respectable effort one expects from a veteran actress.
The end of the world scenario involving the unleashing of some form of pandemic has never before seen such logistic authenticity from the Hollywood machine. Contagion is a true education in outlining a chain of events that may result from global crisis and how various authoritative organizations work with or against each other for reasons that pale in comparison to the emergency at hand. This film also hints that the world is not entirely prepared for this kind of outbreak as a result of very limited resources and finances to those most qualified to handle the situation. For instance, did you know that there is a severe shortage of rabies vaccinations in the United States today? A simple outbreak or mutation of this oft overlooked virus could easily consume whole communities (especially rural ones) at a time even after the authorities are made aware of the situation. Treatment is limited and lethality is assured without vaccination. These kinds of public health emergencies necessitate expediency in preventing the large scale loss of life, but then I shiver at the shocking inefficiency of the American bureaucracy. How many days did it take FEMA to get water to the Super Dome?