Steven Soderbergh, Contagion (2011)

Brilliant story-telling/editing, big-time stars in virtually every speaking role, a story about various wrenching and very ugly deaths by a contagious disease, also about the social chaos produced by fear of the novel virus that dispatches millions world-wide in less time than it takes to apply for and get unemployment compensation—but also about the mustering of opposition. There are three plot lines: The Spread, The Disaster, The Cure. The first two are the flashy, noisy parts of the story. The third is at lower volume. What I admire most about this film is the way that humanity, kindness, concern to prevent suffering and save life, are woven into its shrill, sensational disaster story. The movie makes big statements softly. You have to listen closely to hear them.

The Spread

The first thirty minutes or so of the film are a lesson in “touch.”

Scene 1: no titles. Screen is black; movie opens with sound only, a cough on the soundtrack. A title: Day 2 ( we skip Day 1, but we’ll get back to it): Beth Emhoff, exec of AIMM Alderson Engineering, Mining and Manufacturing (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a bar in a Chicago airport, phones with her lover, whom she’s visited on the long layover in Chicago (the sex was good, but both will be dead on Day 3), touches her face, her phone, eats peanuts (close-up of peanuts), she doesn’t look good, no make-up, coughs, hands over her credit card, waitress takes it, touching Emhoff’s fingers, camera close on the moment of exchange; waitress swipes card, touches screen, camera close on the swipe and the touch of screen.

Scene 2: Waiter in the Hong Kong casino where Emhoff dined and gambled is sick. He’s on the ferry to Kowloon, sweating, staggering, grabs a railing, grabs another (close-up, hand on railing), takes the bus, grips a pole—close-up of hand on pole.

Scene 3: Unidentified Ukranian woman arrives in London, puts down a portfolio significantly; close-up as it slaps the table surface; she takes a taxi, sweating, fainting; dies in the bathroom of her hotel.

Scene 4: Emhoff arrives home, Minneapolis, gives her ten year old son a big, loving hug. Happy reunion with her husband (Matt Damon). Two of the plot lines meet in this family, the spread: Paltrow the carrier, the “index patient,” point of origin of the pandemic; and the disaster movie line: Damon, survivor, observer of death, disorder and chaos.

Scene 5: Chinese business man exits airplane toilet, closes door (close-up, hand on door knob), takes his seat, panting, suffering, breathing hard, drinks water, close-up of hand on glass, sets the glass down next to documents with letter head AIMM Alderson; same man in train, holding overhead grip (close-up); sweating, can’t breathe, collapses, dies.

Scene 6: aforementioned waiter leaves his apartment, staggering, sweating, presses elevator call button (close-up), gets into elevator crowded with a family, staggers out into an open-air market, lots of raw fish, chickens, people; he’s barely conscious, losing vision; staggers into a busy street, hit and killed by a van.

You get the idea. It’s touch. A murderous virus changes hands everytime someone touches something or someone. Suddenly you’re alerted to touch, touching, the danger of things tangible and tangent. To communicate means communicable (as in disease; contiguous things and people mean contagious, contagious means infection, to touch is to infect, touching means contagion.

The opening of the movie stamps contagion-by-touch on our awareness, no comments, just visual clues. Later when WHO rep Dr. Lorena Orantes (Marion Cotillard) scans the surveillance video in the Hong Kong casino, we get lots more moments of infectious contact, highlighted in freeze-frames. Touch is made contiguous with miserable suffering. The repeated close-up of ordinary things in lingering shots is a powerful device to charge an object with meaning visually: Ingrid Bergman’s teacup in Hitchcock’s Notorious: it’s just a teacup! For all its ordinariness it vibrates with high tension (it’s poisoned; she’s being killed gradually, one cup of tea at a time); the ceiling fan in Twin Peaks: It’s just a plain old ceiling fan! But its incessant turning spews a sense of an unspeakable crime, a terrible hidden secret.

Every act of touching in Contagion is made portentous; the viewer gets injected with a shuddering sensitivity to the everyday act of touching. Dr. Mears of the CDC (Kate Winslet) makes it explicit: stop touching your face, she tells a group from the Minneapolis Health Department “The average person touches his face 2000 – 3000 times each day.” She interviews Emhoff’s colleagues and friends—at the corporate headquarters of AIMM Alderson Engineering, Mining and Manufacturing, the company that sent Emhoff to Hong Kong. She later shouts into her phone at Emhoff’s chauffeur, now headed home on a city bus, staggering, sweating, near death, “Get off the bus. DON’T TOUCH ANYBODY AND DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!” He staggers out, touching grips, touching railings, touching seats, touching people—of course. How else do you move around in a bus, esp. if you’re dying?

Contact is murderous. So much so that Dr. Ally Hexter of CDC (Jennifer Ehle), who observes the virus cells in action under a microscope says, “we can’t grow it in a laboratory (hence can’t get a vaccine) because till now it kills every cell it comes in contact with.”

The close-ups of those seemingly random moments have some of that same poison in them; they are killing acts viewed up close, fingers, credit cards, portfolios, peanuts, glasses, cocktails, bats, pigs, chickens, and humans, all they touch turn to “fomites,” the kindling which ignites the killing power of the virus.

Breathing is murderous too, coughing. Watch this movie’s visual lesson on touch and breath, and then think of the U.S. citizens declaring their contempt for the corona virus, rejecting masks, distancing, and caution—as an act of brave self-assertion: They won’t allow the government to take away their personal freedom! as if anyone who limits their ability to infect themselves and others were depriving them of their individual rights. It is like insisting on their god-given right to commit suicide and take others with them.

The Disaster

By day 12, thirteen million people are dead worldwide. There is panic. Long lines for banks, ATM machines, food, drugs. Services stop. Garbage in the streets. Long shots of empty building interiors, gyms with no one exercising, huge airport halls without anyone in them. Drug stores are broken into for hidden supplies of the non-existent vaccine being withheld from the public according to conspiracy theories.

“Prescient” has been the going term of praise for the technical aspects of the story as told by Soderbergh. It speaks the language of disease control which we know by now. But “prescient” isn’t really adequate for the blazingly prophetic quality of the blogger, scammer, peddler of conspiracy theories and fake cures Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). The German roots of his name evoke “crooked path,” a good choice, quietly embedded. Alan’s business is booming. He jumps on the pandemic story immediately; can’t sell it to the SF Chronicle, tries to get the “truth” from Dr. Ian Sussman (Eliot Gould), researcher at UCSF, the only man able to reproduce the virus in the laboratory, the necessary first step to finding a cure. The truth is, Krumwiede tells the doctor, that the virus came from the military. How do you know? says the doctor. Krumwiede: “It says so in the blogosphere.” Sussman hits him with a memorable quip: “You’re not a writer, you’re a blogger. Blogging isn’t writing; it’s graffiti with punctuation.” But Krumwiede knows that for a blogger it’s easy to make the truth, easy to override stuffy scientific integrity with scary conspiracy theories. Contagious disease? No problem. It takes minimal imagination and no skill at all to find a cure. Krumwiede has got one, and he knows its value: millions if not billions. He puts out the word that the government is trying to hide the cure from the public, but he has it. Forsythia, homeopathic herb supplement, readily available. We next see him meeting with a hedge fund manager willing to pay millions to learn—not what cures the virus, but what Krumwiede plans to announce as a cure. Fraud or not, it’s sure to sell to millions of blog readers, internet and TV news. And that means, huge potential profits. We see Krumwiede on national TV. He announces that he is sick with the disease, in the last stages. He drinks a glass of the miracle cure, Forsythia, on live camera. If he appears on the show the next day, he says, the public will know that Forsythia works. He appears; he’s cured! A mad, panicked rush to buy Forsythia is on. Of course, he faked it all. He makes millions.

It’s an early take on Donald Trump peddling hydroxochloroquine with a slightly different angle: “I take it; can’t hurt to try; maybe it works.” Thanks to that short-lived scam, the US government is now the proud owner of 6 million doses of Oxychloriquine. But in the mad rush for the “cure,” someone made a lot of money. Alan and the hedge fund guy know, There’s a fortune to be made from a pandemic; the trick is to control the news.

On the grim and tragic side, we watch Beth Emhoff die from the disease in the arms of her husband, (Matt Damon). Her lover in Chicago dies the same day, and her ten-year old son dies a few days later—we see a terrifying close-up of his corpse, wide-eyed in horror, skin blue, lips parched. We also get to see part of the autopsy on Paltrow, the part where two doctors saw off and remove the top of her head. Nothing prepared me for that.

Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), front-person for the CDC, traces Emhoff’s contacts, makes large-scale arrangements for quarantine and sickbeds, sickens and dies miserably.

The Cure

Dr. Sussman (Gould) is ordered by Hexter and the head of CDC, to stop trying to reproduce the virus in lab samples. It’s too dangerous. The cells “kill whatever they come in contact with.” He goes to a café and watches customers and a barrista coughing, his mind churning with thoughts of millions of infections. He returns to the lab and continues his work, defying the order to stop, i.e. risking his own death.

Dr. Hexter discovers what looks like a viable vaccine against what’s now called MEV-1 (Day 130 or so), but testing it kills monkeys. It looks like a long process of testing and developing. Meanwhile the virus is wiping out a measurable percentage of the world population. Hexter decides to shorten the testing process. She injects herself with the untested vaccine, then infects herself. Here’s how. She goes to the hospital room of her father. He is a retired doctor who returned to his practice to serve virus patients, and caught it. He is in the final stages of the sickness, at his last gasp. Hexter takes off her mask. No protective gear. He pulls back, warns her off. They negotiate this completely outrageous method of testing: take vaccine, self-infect, recover or die; the lead scientist is also the lab animal. Very complex emotional confusion. Her father recognizes what she’s doing, breaks down crying—out of pride, love and fear. He reminds her of another scientist who did the same thing to cure another disease—and won the nobel prize. She hugs and kisses him, sweaty and coughing though he is. The scene is very moving, though completely unsentimental. She recovers; the vaccine works. Millions of lives are saved.

The movie has a big heart. Mears (Winslet) lies dying in a huge sports stadium with hundreds of occupied beds. The man next to her asks the nurse for a blanket; he’s shaking from a chill. Sorry, no blankets left. Mears pulls off her own blanket and gives it to the man.

The point-woman for WHO, Dr. Orantes (Cotillard), is sent to Hong Kong to find the origin of the virus. Two of her Chinese co-workers kidnap her and hold her as a hostage. Their village is being devastated by the virus, and Orantes is a bargaining chip to get them first crack at a vaccine. She spends months in the village. When the vaccine is ready, she is exchanged. The WHO chief brings a chest full of vaccine; the kidnapers return Orantes. A brief shot establishes that she has taken the village and its children to heart. (Some reminiscences of Kitty Fane in Mei-Tan-Fu (Painted Veil). She tells her boss in Hong Kong airport on the way home that she’s glad the village will be saved; her kidnap was worth it. The boss explains that they are not saved; the chest contained placebos, not vaccine; it was a ruse to discourage extortion. She frowns, gets up and stalks off without any explanation, clearly headed for the village where she was held captive. There’s no dramatizing of her gesture, no explanation that she’s headed back to the doomed village, possibly to leverage real vaccine, unfazed by the thought that she might be giving her life to make good on the promise extorted by her kidnapping.

Though courage, self-sacrifice and the commitment to save lives is at work at every moment in the search for a cure, it is understated. On first viewing, you might imagine that the cure is the result of modern public health facilities, great technical sophistication. Look close and you see that it’s the result of humanity and commitment of doctors, researchers, nurses. It overrides self-interest, since, as Krumwiede reminds us, there are fortunes to be made in a pandemic.

Humanity is shown, also movingly but understated, in Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne), head of the CDC. We’ve seen what a scrupulous, ethical character he is, but Krumwiede gets on TV and accuses him of profiteering, along with lots of other people involved in developing the vaccine. In fact Cheever had illegally used advanced insider knowledge to warn his wife to get out of Chicago just before the city is closed down. He’s criminally liable. He restores his self-esteem personally, not publicly. He owes a moral debt to the janitor in his building. As soon as he gets two doses of the vaccine for himself and his wife, he gives his own to the janitor’s son. No tears, minimal thanks. The small boy offers the gigantic Fishburne his hand to shake. They shake. Cheever explains the meaning of the handshake to him: in earlier times you offered your empty right hand to show that you meant no harm. The gesture releases the world of the movie from the tabu on touch.

The origin

A big loose end is tied up in the last sequence. We don’t have an explanation of the cause of the virus. Hexter knew it generally. She tells Cheever, “Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.” We’re treated to a front-row view of that meeting.

Final sequence: We’re in some primal jungle. A large tractor appears and moves through the dense foliage, the ID plate fully visible: AIMM Alderson Engineering, Mining and Manufacturing. Two tall palm trees fall like bowling pins. Close up of a bunch of bananas. A bat settles in, bites on some object (a nut? a seed of some kind?) and flies away with its dinner. It lands on a railing just under the ceiling of a pork factory outside of Hong Kong. The bat drops the nut, one of the disadvantages of hanging upside down for dinner. A hungry piggy picks it up. He heads for market. He’s carried to the kitchen of a big swanky casino. The head chef, bare-handed, is stuffing the (dead) pig with herbs, when he’s called away to meet an important guest of the casino. He wipes his hands casually on his apron, and comes out to meet Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), executive of AIMM Alderson and patient nr. 1. Chef gives her a big smile and a big double handed hand-shake, still imbued with essence of bat-infected pig. They pose for a photo. Freeze frame. Title shows Day 1.

So that fatal meeting of pig and bat was not without a cause: a big international corporation was clearing ground for development. The movie doesn’t state outright that American imperialist capitalism is the cause of a horrendous disease which reduces the population of the earth by 12 %. We’re a long way from Avatar (2009). But there was no need for all those portfolios, documents, buildings, and that tractor displaying AIMM Alderson logos, unless the director wanted to plant a suggestion of that line of culpability. Nature took revenge on the big destructive corporation.

Contagion was made shortly after Avatar (2009). Big rapacious corporations made a good target after the financial crisis of 2008. It couldn’t have occurred to Soderbergh that the president of the United States might have found it in his interest to downplay or ignore the disease and let people die.

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