Bright Lights Film Journal

The Plague 2.0: On Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion

“The original industrial accidents as, for instance, the derailment of a train or the crash of an airplane, were all specific, localized, and particular accidents. They were taking place at a certain place and at a certain moment in time. Now, however, the revolution of instantaneous transmissions brought about by telecommunications makes the accident global.” — Paul Virilio

Contagion is simultaneously timeless and time-bound, place specific and yet everywhere. Its title is not misleading. On one level it’s a horror and disaster film about a virus launched by an innocent bat in Macau, which becomes pandemic as it travels the globe like superhero The Flash on amphetamines. The race to understand the virus’s origin and then develop a vaccine before it decimates humanity also makes it a thriller. Masterfully edited images (Stephen Mirrione) and soundtrack (Cliff Martinez) and a wonderfully circular script (Scott Z. Burns) nearly perfectly portray the global back-and-forth, sometimes dizzying montage-movement of contagion that the title implies and that has in other films been identified as a “hyperlink” style of cinema. Used to impressively full potential, too, is Contagion‘s all-star cast (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet). Yet it arguably enters a higher canon of films especially because it poses perennial questions of the human condition (individual versus society, duty versus personal feeling, love versus justice, to name a few), while simultaneously placing those questions in complicated contemporary global as well as national and local relations of inequality (even between janitors and oligarchs, for example). Those inequalities have a foil in the Enlightenment tradition of triumphal Science, which the film admirably puts in its deservedly ironic contemporary place, subservient to a government-dependent global capitalism of medicine.

Contagion can be viewed as potential existential allegory and simultaneously realist, even realpolitik film, following what seems an obvious influence — Albert Camus’ famous novel The Plague. Camus’ multi-level story is traditionally read as treating the absurdity of the human condition, that it faces recurrent plagues and wars and their accompanying suffering, and that its people deal with it in a range of ways, some admirable, some repugnant; whereas Contagion goes further, showing, in addition, the absurdity of global, national, and local inequalities in social conditions that humans themselves have made and reproduce on a daily basis.

“What we learn in time of pestilence,” Camus’ narrator claims, is “that there are more things to admire than to despise in humans.” While Soderbergh’s (by which I mean in this essay Soderbergh and Co.’s) film does have redemptive characters, it is a tad less optimistic than Camus’ narrator concludes (himself perhaps wanting to massage his data to believe so). It isn’t at all clear that the plague makes the people “bond,” or become more altruistic. On the contrary, we see massive every-man-for-himself violence, even murder, in response to the virus, the same kind of behavior, in fact, that is rampant in everyday life in countries like the U.S. (even if often spatially contained, as if every day is the plague).

As in Camus’ story, Contagion reveals some characters ready to profit from the suffering, especially blogger/citizen journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who begins by posing some critical questions about the government’s account of the pandemic and its relationship to the pharmaceutical industry, and ends up looking more abhorrently selfish than any other character, as he stands accused of trying to drive up prices for a fake homeopathic remedy. The latter is all the more troubling (and writer Scott Z. Burns is here at his politically riskiest) because the government-pharmaceutical complex stands to gain face from his self-serving populism. Yet even the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) main character, Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), is shown, like many of the film’s characters, to be privileging friends and family over the public he is being paid to serve. Moving toward the film’s upsetting scenes of mass response, Soderbergh’s treatment of the U.S. (he gives his Chinese subplot less of a society-wide view) suggests the need for Leviathan in such situations, represented by military blockades and machine-gunned sentries at every turn (in fact, their inadequate numbers push many people to take up arms in self-defense as well as offense). Given the unpredictable ethical behavior of other public servants in the film, one can hardly expect the military and police sector to behave much differently, even if they are not treated in any detail.

Technology, especially digital and closely related to its co-star Science, shows itself to be a double-edged sword character (like the humans who make and use it). The speed at which the virus travels, and attempts to understand and contain it, are mirrored by the vertiginous communication about it, a point that perfectly captures the contemporary dilemmas of our new media culture that moves between and integrates digital technologies and older print and broadcast ones. Rumor and information bombs, which I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, threaten to wreak equal havoc.1 False information and claims deliberately spread by self-interested parties such as the Jude Law blogger-citizen journalist quickly attracts believers and old mainstream print and TV news attention, all of whom in turn pass it on, and the result is a communication catastrophe difficult to contain. A key point is that the severity of both natural and communication viruses is enabled by time-space compression of high-tech political-economic globalization; however, unlike the film’s biological virus born of indirect bat-pig contact absent a malevolent motive, the communication virus is deliberately launched (though the fact that bio-viruses can be humanly launched as warfare is also briefly considered). Meanwhile, the old broadcast media seem helpless to clarify anything, being at the mercy of not only government and corporations but also now of what some naively celebrate as the new democracy of user-generated content. This particular part of the film speaks to a plethora of problems in the contemporary political and cultural scene, from “Obama is a Muslim and/or has a fake birth certificate” to “Shirley Sherrod is a racist” rumor bombs, to say nothing of the effects similar claims have in the financial sector.

Still, even-handedly, Soderbergh isn’t a simplistic technological pessimist/catastrophist, since it is social media that spread some key information and questions quickly enough to be an imposed conscience on oligarchs in public service positions, such as the Fishburne CDC character, whose public statements of the pandemic do not jibe with the information he shared with his wife.2 Technology of the surveillance society also comes off positively in the film, as health care officials depend on its seemingly omnipresent cameras to solve the mystery of the virus’s origins. Finally, several scenes give science lessons in modern epidemiology via an impressive visual technological simulation of the virus, rendering Al Gore’s PowerPoints downright stone age.

Indeed, it would be wrong to say the film is too heavy on human frailties in the ever-ominous digitally and economically globalized age. In many ways, the film’s heroes are about the ethical choices they make within their job responsibilities but also about how those choices inevitably overlap between public and private, some of them having enormous consequences for millions of people. If Fishburne’s CDC character falters in privileging friends and family, Kate Winslet’s no-bullshit, tough scientist character gives her life for the cause of public protection and health. Indeed, there’s no sense that she has any life outside of her job. The same can be said for the scientist, played with virtuosity by Jennifer Ehle, who works tirelessly on a vaccine, also taking life-threatening risks (which apparently is an ethic impressed upon her by her father, or are duty and altruism genetic?). Several of these characters are faced with ethical issues of following orders and respecting authority or doing what they feel is best or right. But what is just and right in the film seems to be situational, not clearly in favor of following or rebelling, for the greater good or the personal one. Science, also, plays a heroic but complicated role.

Science saves, but not everyone, not at the same rate, and not without being partly co-opted by profit and geopolitical relations. It is easy to miss the latter point of the film, because most viewers do not face daily news that underlines global inequalities of the distribution of science’s fruits. Otherwise, this would be just another literary treatment of the human condition and the absurdly divergent reactions of its creatures in the face of extreme collective adversity.

Government and the market, of course, mediate the scientists investigating the virus and working on its cure, revealing the thorny obstacles for public health, local and global. “The historic dream of public health is social justice,” writes one recent public health scholar tackling the issue head-on. Here’s some perspective for this aspect of the film. Mark Heywood, writing in the Third World Quarterly in 2002, noted that post-World War II globalizing economic and political processes have increased vulnerability to disease in many parts of the world. Those processes have also accelerated the speed at which viruses can travel. While certain diseases globalize, the tragedy is that “while there has been a globalisation of medical research, and a globalisation of knowledge about medicine, there has been only a partial globalisation in the availability of medicines.” More concretely, “a doctor working in impoverished areas of Botswana or Malaysia can read about effective medicines on the Internet, but has no hope of obtaining these medicines for her patients or getting to a health centre that can obtain them.” For those like the Gwyneth Paltrow character who works as a corporate globe trotter, that means “it is possible to board a plane in Johannesburg — a city in a country where the prevalence of HIV infection among pregnant women was 24.8% in 2000 and where 22 million people ‘survive’ on less than R500 (US$50) per month — and disembark 12 hours later in the USA or Europe, countries where HIV prevalence is well below 1% and where poverty is confined to relatively small groups of people.”3

It’s no doubt a tall order to employ the cast Soderbergh has to make a film as moving, entertaining, and successful at the box office as Contagion and still show the global political economics and ethical issues behind the drama. Soderbergh treats the inequalities subtly. A global map in the middle of the film shows the rapidly proliferating virus across space. Countries with high populations and fewer resources per capita, such as India and China, figure on this map. While the film has nothing to say specifically about most of those non-Western areas, the Chinese are a metaphor that appears to stand in for the rest, thanks to a very interesting rite of passage experienced by a World Health Organization (WHO) doctor played convincingly by Marie Cotillard. Cotillard is sent to China to figure out the origins of the disease. She reacts with cold officiousness when her local Chinese counterpart (Chin Han) mentions his mother just died from the virus and that half of his village has been decimated by it. However, by the film’s end, after being kidnapped and forced to establish human relations with children at risk in the village (who are no longer mere statistics in the WHO database and reports), she is moved with indignation at the global inequality in the distribution of the vaccine, mired in geopolitics. To put a fine point on it, in 2008, the WHO listed China as 116th in the world in terms of healthcare spending per capita; Switzerland, the base of the WHO, ranked fifth, while the U.S. ranked first (even if the latter’s “efficency” measure is much lower).4

The irony is acute. In the film, a French company in China has manufactured some of the first large quantities of the vaccine, which were apparently to be exported or to serve the Western oligarchic classes (people like Fishburne’s character). Meanwhile, the appearance of fairness in distribution is questioned via a montage with the U.S., where the population receives the vaccine over time in the order of lottery numbers drawn. This back and forth between Asia and the U.S., scientists and government, the poor and oligarchs/the rich makes for a nuanced tale that is simultaneously existentialist and historically specific. The latter questions capitalism and medicine (especially in the U.S., but also elsewhere represented again by the China-based French manufacturer of the vaccine, since the French have a much more egalitarian and accessible healthcare system). As many a public health worker who’s read about globalization knows, the AIDS pandemic followed (and continues) to follow similar patterns of injustice.

The morality of sovereign nations and their collusion with pharmaceutical capitalism figures, too, in this drama of power and ethics across time and space. Thus the focus on the U.S., whose government-pharmaceutical alliance is shown to be concerned only with the U.S. (according to the absence of dialogue otherwise), and even there, it is not one for all and all for one. Fishburne’s high-level CDC official is shown working diligently for a solution, and yet in protecting the population as a public servant, he can’t help taking care of loved ones first. When a janitor overhears him breaking his public duties by making exceptions for those he cares about, the former reminds him that lots of people have loved ones that need taking care of. Later we find the janitor’s son getting Fishburne’s own dose of the vaccine, since he and his wife are apparently privileged to get it first. However, is it humane guilt or fear of blackmail that motivates what would otherwise be Fishburne’s seemingly selfless act? After all, by not taking the vaccine and fastening a Government Issue bracelet that indicates he has not been and is not contagious, he may be risking not just his own life but also those of others whom he could infect.

“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves,” says narrator Dr. Rieux in The Plague. Soderbergh’s film seems to make a similar claim, with utter fidelity to the absurdity of the cosmos. The closing footage is the most fantastic, and slow-mo’d for emphasis. A bat drops a banana into a pig lot petri dish, the virus then jumps on board for the market, then to the casino restaurant, as the wheels of economic globalization start to rev up. The sequence is a subtle and compact meditation on globalization and agribusiness, the latter of which doesn’t really appear until then.

Soderbergh is not starry-eyed about how humans react to public threats. Some will individualize them almost naturally; some will go crazy out of self-preservation, becoming just as violent and as threatening as the plague they face; and some will see yet another opportunity to profit, literally becoming millionaires. Others, mysterious as the process that begat the virus in bat-pig contact, risk and sacrifice their lives out of purely irrational, altruistic, or unwavering professional care for their fellow human beings. That some of their jobs were as public servants in the first place only shows their magnanimity to follow through while others demonstrate the private can and does triumph again and again over the public, partly by refusing the distinction altogether. Do the majority rise above the inhuman conditions of the plague to salvage humanity itself? That’s not clear. But many do, and not just in times of plague, even if they are not quickly able to change the unequal global socioeconomic conditions in which they find themselves making choices.

  1. See my “That’s Democratainment: Obama, Rumor Bombs, and Primary Definers,” Flow 10.8 (2010) available at http://flowtv.org/2010/10/thats-democratainment/ []
  2. For more reading on this topic see my “Wikileak’s Lessons for Media Theory and Politics,” Flow, 13.6 (2011) available at http://flowtv.org/2011/05/flow-favorites-wikileaks-lessons-for-media-theory-and-politics/. []
  3. Available at http://hmb.utoronto.ca/Old%20Site/HMB303H/weekly_supp/week-08-09/Heywood_Drug_Access.pdf []
  4. http://www.who.int/whosis/whostat/2011/en/index.html []