Healthcare professionals, government officials and everyday people find themselves in the midst of a worldwide epidemic as the CDC works to find a cure.
That synopsis above, which I cribbed from IMDB, is as dry and dusty as any government document, and doesn’t come close to explaining Steve Soderbergh’s pacy, powerful and frightening look at the frontline scientists, doctors and officials trying to identify, understand and manage an epidemic caused by a previously unknown virus.
The ensemble movie, with its different stories running concurrently as the kinds of people we assume to be “in the know” try to work out what they’re up against and then develop a response, is as calm and determined as many of its characters, though they’re always human in their reactions.
Rules are broken to save loved ones, and infected officials work to the end from self-imposed quarantine to track down other infected people.
Still, it feels unbalanced that the weight of human behaviours is carried by these people, plus conspiracy theorist and blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) and Patient Zero’s immune husband Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), with little about the general public at large.
We are mere bit players, which is a shame as this epidemic – which kills millions – is a society-altering event. It would mark its populations even though it doesn’t lead to the end of civilisation (because human beings as a group are resilient) and it would have been good to witness that.
That failure to show how people unconnected with the political, scientific and military responses are affected is one of two reasons Contagion misses out on five stars from me.
The second reason is the total lack of spinning newspapers coming into view, bearing tabloid and broadsheet headlines from around the world about the collapse of civilisation.
Realism be damned – spinning newspapers are the post-apocalyptic hill, strewn with unburied bodies, that I’m prepared to die on (and failing that, a moonlighting BBC newsreader gravely intoning about zombies).
Contagion – which came out in 2011 – has, like a bacterial infection where the patient hasn’t bothered to finish their course of antibiotics, been enjoying a second life recently.
The 24 hour coronavirus news, and 24-hour conjecture masquerading as news, has led people back to Soderbergh’s film, though whether it’s now seen as a how-to survival guide isn’t clear.
Generally I’m quite laid back about new diseases: wash hands, avoid travelling to hotspots (easy enough, unless my local Waitrose succumbs), and work out how long my stash of out-of-date tinned chickpeas might last if we can’t go outside.
It’s increasingly difficult to work out whether papers and news programmes are reporting panic or contributing to it though. And it’s only a few short weeks since I had to explain to my anxious 10 year old that living in the leafy Home Counties he wasn’t about to die in a Third World War.
I could reassure him now that he (probably) caught Swine Flu back in 2010 and he was fine; and that I (probably) caught Aussie Flu at Christmas 2017 and was, annoyingly for anyone taking the trouble to email me to tell me they hate my reviews, also fine.
Why did I want to watch Contagion now? Well, I’d never seen it, I like movies about modern society in peril, and I thought its decade-long distance might make it easier to understand the truth of our own unfolding situation.
And having grown up in Britain in the 1980s, when we mainly worried about thermonuclear war, rabies and spontaneous human combustion, a pandemic felt like uncharted territory (it sounds odd but there’s something to be said for the familiarity of concerns that one has had to learn to live with, however awful).
Contagion does a great job presenting its science: with some explained and some left hanging.
You’ll soon know what a fomite is (any inanimate object that can pass on a virus when someone touches it) and the R0 (R-Nought – on average, how many people one contagious person infects).
And as it’s an ensemble piece it has no compunction killing off its (excellent) cast. Patient Zero Gwyneth Paltrow is the first to go, shortly after her character Beth Emhoff returns to her family in Minneapolis from a Hong Kong business trip, including a Chicago stop-off to sleep with an ex-boyfriend.
Her young son from her first marriage, Clark, doesn’t last much longer; this is a new disease with a short incubation period.
The process is also quite rapid: a cough, extreme malaise, seizures, foaming at the mouth. Patients are dry-lipped and grey-faced, shivering or sheeny with sweat.
(We do see Beth again briefly, in a shocking and unexpected scene played with the calm nonchalance of medics and scientists.)
The characters are serious but human, zingy lines sounding believable rather than unlikely: “Someone doesn’t have to weaponize bird flu. The birds are doing that” says head of the Centre for Disease Control Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) when the idea of a biological weapon is mooted.
Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is left alive, with his teenage daughter Jory from his first marriage. Initially quarantined, he never gets ill, and appears to be immune. Mitch has to navigate looted supermarkets, neighbourhood gunshots and Jory’s boyfriend who keeps coming round (their teenage determination to continue their relationship in the face of a worldwide epidemic is both sweet and an example of people’s resilience).
Scientist Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) battles to come up with a vaccine, she and her colleague dressed in inflatable orange hazmat suits and attached to oxygen by brightly coloured plastic slinkies. They look like contestants on ’90s game show Gladiators.
Alan Krumwiede turns out to be unable to hold even to his own warped sense of moral high ground. Law’s depiction of him, as a small and bumptious man desperate to hit the big time whatever the consequences, is chilling. (I did love Dr Ian Sussman’s description of bloggers, when he meets Alan, as “blogging is not writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation”.)
There are numbered days so we know where were are. Bodies are buried in trenches, wrapped in plastic. Businesses sit silent.
Meanwhile Krumwiede tells his many followers he’s been cured by a complementary therapy called Forsythia.
Interviewed together on screen, Alan is giving actual specific information on how people can save themselves, even if it’s unscientific rubbish. Cheever can only offer general updates on work towards a vaccine and stress the greater dangers of panic.
The human stories of front line staff (one official is kidnapped for the vaccination) are presented without melodrama.
The vaccine, once developed, is given out according to randomly-picked birthdates – a true healthcare lottery.
But by then there’s an official rhythm to the government response, a feeling that life will continue. It’s really a film about methodology and the pros and cons of dodging protocol (though I fully accept that sounds as unexciting as the synopsis at the top of the page).
You’ll find out lots of actually interesting facts too. That we touch our faces three to five times every minute we’re awake; that we shake hands because in the past it demonstrated to possible enemies or rivals that we carried no weapons. Not visible ones, anyway.
Watch the trailer now: