Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Contagion -- disinformation and disinfection

Director: Steven Soderbergh, 2011. (PG-13)

Soderbergh knows how to make a slick movie. He has all aspects of the craft down pat. And he knows how to attract an A-list cast, as is evident here, with more Oscar-winners or nominees than we can name (at least four and four). But he has perhaps too many characters in this ensemble cast and struggles a little to juggle multiple intersecting stories. More on that to come.

The film opens on day 2 of the outbreak. There is no introduction. We are dropped into the story in progress. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is waiting in Chicago airport for her flight home. As she coughs, the camera tracks what she touches: her phone, her glass, her credit card, her face. . . From here, Soderbergh takes us on a cross-continental montage showing others who have similar symptoms in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and China. The intent is clear: some kind of viral disease is travelling around the world.

When Beth arrives home to husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and son, her fever increases, her seizures start, and before 10 minutes are up, she is dead. So is her son. Only Mitch survives. And the epidemic is on!

Members of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the World Health Organization are called in, to respectively search for a vaccine and for the origin of the outbreak. This brings in more characters, doctors mostly. Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix) sends Dr Mears (Kate Winslet, The Reader) to Wisconsin to investigate Emhoff’s death, while working with Dr Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) on understanding the novel strain of the virus in Atlanta. Meanwhile, Dr Orantes (Marion Cotillard, Inception) from WHO is sent to Hong Kong to pinpoint the location of the index patient. And then there’s Dr Sussman (Elliot Gould), working in a less secure lab in San Francisco. This is a global disaster and requires global participation.

Indeed, working together is the only way the world might survive. And doctors are the heroes here. Whether they are working with big pharmaceutical companies or not, their intentions are true. They want to heal the sick and prevent further deaths. Putting themselves in the face of danger, one key character dies and another chooses self-sacrifice. They are like the great physician, Jesus (Mk. 2:17), who came to heal the sick and sinful, offering himself on the cross.

The strangest character is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, Repo Men), a blogger columnist who exposes the truth in his campaign against big business and government control. He is the first to catch onto the enormity of this outbreak. But when he tries to sell this to a legitimate newspaper, he is ignored. Stalking Dr Sussman, he is put in his place with the best line in the film: “Blogging is not writing. It’s just graffiti with punctuation.”

Point taken! True journalists sit behind desks and work for print media. But as a blogger, I resent and ultimately reject this. The internet has leveled the playing field, allowing anyone with a computer or tablet to express his or her thoughts. Certainly that does not equate to journalistic competency, but it enables ideas, if not truths, to be shared. We do need to check our sources and facts more carefully, in this day and age, but this is a small price to pay for the equal access. And I get to write my movie reviews that are read worldwide, when a decade ago that would have been unthinkable and impossible.

But Krumwiede’s blogging has a dark underbelly. While the epidemiologists are trying to keep things under wraps to quell any fear, Krumweide’s columns are exacerbating panic and spreading misinformation. He has a reason: he wants to make money by offering a solution that he tests on himself.

Here is another theme of the film: opportunism vs exploitation. Is Krumwiede being opportunistic? Or is he exploiting a bad situation and making it worse? The former is laudable and sometimes helpful. The latter is low and horrifying. Proverbs tells us, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor” (Prov. 22:22) but in this case it extends beyond the poor. This kind of exploitation hurts everyone, since all are impacted by a contagious disease of this magnitude. Masquerading as an agent of truth, Krumwiede is nothing more than another liar, a deceiver, reminiscent of Lucifer, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4). Krumweide’s words blinded the minds of many.

One problem with Contagion is the vastness of the scope and of the ensemble cast. Some of the stars die quickly, others live but are forgotten in the story for long periods. It is hard to keep the various storylines in mind. And several characters, like the one John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) plays, seem unnecessary. One wonders why Soderbergh didn’t trim these and leave them on the cutting room floor.

What Contagion does well is show the effects such an outbreak might have on society. As information slowly seeps out of official sources, or disinformation rushes out of the blogosphere, people start to understand they are at risk. Panic causes society as we know it to break down. Infrastructure collapses. Looting occurs, food runs out, cities are quarantined, martial law is enforced. When Mitch Emhoff sees neighbors burglarized and possibly shot, his 911 call cannot go through. A virus so small we cannot see could cause the destruction of everything in sight.

One point emerges clean and clear: we should be more careful with what we handle. Whether it is true that we touch our faces three times every minute, we do communicate germs and viruses by touch. And we touch a lot of things each day. When we consider that many others have touched these before us, leaving a microscopic trail of possibly lethal germs, we might take more care to wash our hands more often.

They say, “cleanliness is next to godliness,” meaning that keeping clean is second only to worshipping God. In Contagion, keeping clean and separate could keep you alive. Living a life of godliness, as Paul tells us to do in 1 Timothy 2:2, is far better. And doing this through faith in Jesus will guarantee life in the hereafter, even if the virus gets you in this one.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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