Contagious: Contagion | Daily News


Contagious: Contagion

There’s a moment in Contagion when you realise this isn’t an ordinary flu. After Beth Imhoff collapses at her home and is operated on, her husband Mitch is told by the doctor that she’s dead. We barely hear him, and so does Mitch, who right after being told the news asks as to when she’ll be discharged. You didn’t hear what I said, the doctor replies, and then repeats himself. The incredulity on Mitch’s face is on our faces too, and he starts haranguing. How and of what did my wife die? The doctor and the nurses are baffled; they don’t know. That irks the husband even more, and he very nearly explodes. Can I have her body back? No, the doctor tells him, we need to run some tests. Utterly despondent, Mitch returns home, only to face another tragedy: his stepson has collapsed. His death won’t wait for the ambulance: after much coughing and gasping, he too succumbs.

There are many parallels between what unfolds thereafter in the film and what’s happening now, and of them the most obvious, and eerie, has to be the suspicion that the virus is a bio-weapon. But then Barack Obama was US president in 2011, and you don’t get the dithering, zigzagging, rambunctious rumours that you’re getting now from the officials depicted in the film. Indi Samarajiva, domiciled in the States, writes that while the closest to a villain in the film is the conspiracy theorist blogger, the villains of what’s unfolding now are world leaders downplaying the severity of the virus and, at the same time, encouraging theories about its origins. There’s another eerie parallel: like Jude Law, who plays the blogger, those politicians are promoting random cures with no proof.

Steven Soderbergh concentrates the drama, the tension, and the conflict in the plot within three parallel storylines: the Imhoffs, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and Hong Kong. You feel like you’re transported from the one to the other: from Mitch trying to protect his daughter from the world outside, including her boyfriend from next door, to Dr Cheever in the CDC breaking all protocol by telling his wife over the phone to get away from their neighbourhood, to Dr Orantes of the WHO being kidnapped by a government official in Hong Kong and whisked away to the official’s village where they can use her as ransom to get the first few batches of the virus. Much, much more happens within these storylines, of course, and we see characters come in and go out; not even the big stars playing them are immune. In the end there’s a sensation, almost cathartic, of release.

Except that by then, more than two million in the States and more than 26 million in the rest of the world have died. The way the virus, code-named MEV-1, spreads out could have been material for a more sensationalist thriller – think of Outbreak, where Wolfgang Petersen the director speeds up the action and the drama so much that the hero, a military doctor played by Dustin Hoffman, discovers the disease, manages to remain uninfected, and flies away in a helicopter, unauthorised, to find a cure, within just days, all while a scheming General in the army does his best to stop him from discovering an antidote – but in Contagion Soderbergh shies away from the sensationalist. Still, we know that a virus of this magnitude will not, if it does appear, leave the world as calm and intact as it does in the movie: we are told early on that it has an R0 number of 4, much worse than COVID-19.

Soderbergh’s achievement is his ability to underplay, and at the same time dramatise and humanise the plot. In Petersen’s film, the outbreak finds its way to a California village, and it stays there, while in Contagion the virus spreads everywhere (though we mainly see what happens in the States). And yet, in Outbreak the director hikes up the tension and conflict, with added storylines of conspiracy theories in the military and a last-minute-botched plan to nuke the entire village to keep the pandemic from spreading any further. In Contagion, by contrast, the virus can’t be stopped, and in place of a conspiracy to prevent an epidemic by detonating a nuclear device, we have bureaucratic officials who, even when it’s clear that this is no ordinary flu, are more concerned with the costs and the logistics of maintaining quarantine centres. Outbreak compresses the setting and heightens the conflicts; Contagion expands the setting and tempers the conflicts.

Comparisons with other epidemic themed films aside, Contagion works at nearly every level. The acting is convincing, if not completely, then almost: from the multidimensional, as with Matt Damon’s portrait of a beleaguered, fiercely protective father-husband, to the less than complex and rounded, as with Jude Law’s portrait of the rambling, cynical, and self-centred conspiracy theorist, to the idealist (unrealistic?), as with Jennifer Ehle’s, Kate Winslet’s, and Marion Cotillard’s portraits of selfless doctors and epidemiologists trying to save the world doing what little they can, and what little they are allowed to. The movie rings a false note when Ehle, as Dr Ally Hextall, decides to bypass bureaucratic procedures by injecting herself with the vaccine, and when Cottillard, as Dr Orantes, decides to return to the village to warn its residents that the vaccine given to her kidnapper in exchange for her release is in fact an ineffective placebo. We can buy altruism; just not of that sort.

The most rounded character from all these characters, of course, is Damon’s, but there’s a more imperfect, and thus more complex, portrait: that of Ellis Cheever, played by Laurence Fishburne in an empathetic yet understandingly human way. His character, it must be said, reminds us how deeply flawed we are in the face of tragedy: we think of our duties, but also of our responsibility to those we love. That is why this film works: it shows us that in spite of the most selfless qualities in us, we’ll always look out for those we hold dearest. We can be selfish, but in our selfishness, we can be selfless to.

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