A thriller that has some depth

September 27, 2011

NOTE: This letter contains spoilers about the movie Contagion.

WHILE I agree with some of the political points Matt Hoke makes in his review of Contagion ("Contagion or confusion?"), I feel that as a film review, he judges Contagion too harshly.

Contagion is no radical masterpiece, but if that were the correct standard upon which to judge Hollywood films, none would be worthy of praise. As a piece of entertainment within the "disaster-thriller" genre, I found Contagion to be above average: it was stimulating and enjoyable to watch.

Director Steven Soderbergh employs some interesting and successful techniques, such as creative cinematography that draws viewers' attention to ways the virus spreads, so that the filmmaking itself evokes the main character: the virus.

Rather than employing linear storytelling, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns present snippets of clues and interactions, as well as parallel storylines, leaving viewers to assemble the whole. This echoes the challenge facing disease investigators and scientists attempting to solve the puzzle of where the virus came from and how to stop it.

Finally, there is something unsettling about watching Contagion in a crowded movie theater, shoulder to shoulder with a sea of coughing and sneezing humanity sharing bags of popcorn. Watching the film in the theater is itself part of the experience.

Beyond that, Hoke's review doesn't accurately represent the political tone of Contagion. While the film does glorify some bureaucrats (especially Laurence Fishburne's character, who gives his own vaccine to the working-class son of the office janitor), it is the case that there are people working for the federal government in lower level positions on the front lines in areas such as health care, who do genuinely believe in serving the public and do a good job with the resources they have available.

However, the film highlights numerous cases that are critical of the government and big business. For example, politicians object to closing shopping malls to stop the spread of the disease, arguing instead for waiting until the end of the holiday shopping season. Wall Street speculators are shown to be focused solely on how to profit from the outbreak of the disease.

Homeland Security officials are portrayed in a less-than-positive light, paranoid about the possibility of the disease being a terrorist plot and arrogant despite their ignorance of basic issues (one asks "could they weaponize bird flu?" Fishburne's character responds "the birds are already doing that").

The government response as a whole is inadequate and last-minute, as officials scramble to find places to house the sick, cannot produce enough vaccines quickly enough, and are unable or unwilling to provide food and other basic supplies as the disease spreads and society begins to break down.

Jude Law's character, with his loner style and megalomania, seemed to me to be more of a shot against 9/11 conspiracy-theory types than against activists or the left.

THERE ARE examples of ordinary people acting heroically and with compassion: Matt Damon's character stands out, as does the Chinese health official who throws his career away to kidnap a World Health Organization representative to ransom for vaccines for the children of his village, but these are overshadowed by the selfishness of "the mob." This is one of the film's biggest failings. "Contagion" does not do enough justice to the acts of selflessness by ordinary people so often evident in times of crisis.

Beyond being released just before the anniversary of 9/11, the film was also released in the midst of an ongoing economic crisis, and was filmed prior to the emergence of significant resistance to that crisis in the U.S., wrapping just around the time that the Wisconsin uprising began.

The virus that spreads despite the often-bumbling efforts of government officials to stop it, the Wall Street vultures who seek to profit off of it, and the sense of fear, alienation and desperation among so many ordinary people is more than reminiscent of the economic crisis, which, in addition to its entertainment value, may explain the film's popularity.

I do agree with Hoke that the film missed an opportunity to go deeper into how the profit system, and especially the pharmaceutical industry and the government that serves them and Big Business in general, makes impossible an efficient, effective response to disease outbreaks.

This was in evidence during the "swine flu" (H1N1) outbreak two years ago, when Big Pharma manufactured vaccines using slow, ancient technology because so much of their research and development efforts focus on profitable drugs like Viagra rather than lifesaving vaccines.

In addition, factory farming provides ideal conditions for the spread of disease (and in fact was likely the cause of the swine flu outbreak, hence the title). The film barely touches on this, when more detail would have been welcome.

While Contagion leaves plenty to be desired if one is looking for a manifesto on what is wrong with capitalism, if judged against the standard Hollywood blockbuster fare with which it competes, the film stands above the fray as more complex, intelligent, innovative and enjoyable than most of what you'll find in your local mall's multiplex.
Gary Lapon, New York City

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