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The Pandemic Movie of Our Time Isn’t Contagion. It’s Jaws.

The 1975 Spielberg flick captures the dread of facing an invisible enemy—and the incompetence of the politicians in charge.

Universal Studios

Ever since the coronavirus gained a toehold on these shores, freaked-out Americans have been watching Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie Contagion, about the race to stop a mysterious, rapidly spreading disease that emerges from China. Contagion has been in iTunes’s top 10 ever since January. In recent weeks, 1995’s Outbreak, a thriller about a mega-Ebola ravaging a small California town, has regularly been among Netflix’s most viewed movies. 

I am not sure, however, that these movies have very much to say about the situation we find ourselves in. Outbreak is a Tom Clancy–ish thriller featuring a comic book virus that practically melts the organs of any human it infects. Contagion is actually a good movie, anticipating the turn toward explainer films like The Big Short, and the Contagion virus is more realistic and contains numerous similarities to ours: It jumps from animals to people! It comes from China! It’s covered up by the Chinese government! But the movie virus is, as in Outbreak, much deadlier, killing one in five people. It spreads globally almost instantly, killing Gwyneth Paltrow within its first 10 minutes.  

There is nothing fast-paced about the coronavirus. For months, dread has slowly accumulated in my midsection. Every day brings a succession of new anxieties about the virus and the economy; about my family and friends; about my hands and the many, many things they touch, particularly my face. Above all, there is the sense that everything that is bad today will be worse tomorrow. And the movie that best reflects that reality is not Contagion but Steven Spielberg’s  Jaws. 

It is notable that the shark is barely in the movie, appearing for all of four minutes. This was not by design. Initially, Spielberg had three mechanical sharks made, but they looked hokey and frequently broke down. He was forced to embrace his inner Hitchcock, rarely showing the movie’s titular villain. As a result, the shark was more of an invisible threat, which turned out to be even scarier. “The visual ellipsis,” Molly Haskell wrote in her critical biography of Spielberg, “created far greater menace and terror, as the shark is nowhere and everywhere.” Sound familiar? If Jaws had been made only a few years later, we would have almost certainly been burdened with a CGI shark. Forty years after its release, the movie’s great white works as a metaphor as well as it does as a shark. 

One of the strangest things about the coronavirus panic is how normal everything seems. Even with few people going out, my neighborhood looks the way it does on a Sunday morning. The difference is that I’m bombarded by a constant stream of push alerts and texts. That is a key part of what makes Jaws work. Even when everything appears fine, you know that terror is lurking just beneath the surface. 

Our world is also divided between the types that Jaws establishes. There is Roy Scheider’s Sheriff Brody: apprehensive, well-meaning, but out of his depth. Then there is Richard Dreyfuss’s chatty Spielberg stand-in, Dr. Hooper: jittery, neurotic, a sudden expert on whatever topic is in front of him. The scene in which Brody, a transplanted New York cop who is afraid of boats and open water, comes home to spend the evening reading about sharks, feels particularly relevant. Set in 2020, he would be scrolling Twitter for updates—or, for that matter, watching Contagion. 

But it’s in the political realm where Jaws really shines. Politics are largely incidental in other pandemic movies—Contagion famously never shows the president or, for that matter, any political figure. But Jaws’s conflict (besides the shark versus everybody) is political. Mayor Vaughn sees the shark as a hoax and a messaging problem, not a public health one. “I don’t think you appreciate the gut reaction people have to these things,” he tells Brody. “It’s all psychological. You yell ‘Barracuda,’ everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell ‘Shark,’ we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” 

And deeper still, it’s an economic problem. Pushed to close the beaches, Vaughn puts his foot down: “I’m only trying to say that Amity is a summer town. We need summer dollars. Now, if the people can’t swim here, they’ll be glad to swim at the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Long Island.” 

Played with all the smarm of a used-car salesman by Murray Hamilton, Vaughn is among the first creatures to emerge out of the cynicism engendered by Watergate. His approach to the crisis, nevertheless, is the same as that of current politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson: We must protect the economy first, humans second. Vaughn’s beach is no different than Trump’s stock market, an unofficial marker of society’s well-being. The way he talks about it is even Trumpian: “As you can see, it’s a beautiful day,” he tells a reporter. “The beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time.” 

After the shark kills a child on July 4, Vaughn is a whimpering mess, still barely able to take action—a moment that recalls Trump’s disastrous public statements a week ago, before he began to act “presidential.” (Vaughn is, it should be noted, still mayor in Jaws 2, an ominous message as we barrel toward the 2020 elections.) 

It is perhaps no surprise that Boris Johnson told an audience in 2006 that “the real hero of Jaws is the mayor.” To be fair, Johnson did not approve of Vaughn’s beach policy. “OK, in that instance he was actually wrong,” he clarified. “But in principle, we need more politicians like the mayor—we are often the only obstacle against all the nonsense which is really a massive conspiracy against the taxpayer.” Johnson’s embrace of “herd immunity”—the theory, since abandoned by the British government, that the disease Covid-19 be allowed to spread among healthier people to create immunity against it—was presumably partly premised on this ideological position.

Vaughn could have prevented a lot of death and suffering by closing the beaches and paying Captain Quint $10,000 to catch the shark in the film’s first act. Without Vaughn, Stuart Heritage writes in The Guardian, “Jaws would simply be a film about a policeman who spots a shark, imposes a stringent set of beachside social distancing rules, and then kills the shark.” Instead, ignored by politicians, Brody, Hooper, and Quint face off against an unseen enemy on a much too fragile, much too small boat. They’re on their own—a feeling that is all too familiar.