There is a scene in Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s global mega-pandemic thriller, in which the scalp of a dead patient—played by one of the film’s biggest stars—is sliced open during an autopsy. A flap of marbled flesh flops limply over her forehead; in the screening I attended, this was definitely the moment that elicited the most grossed-out gasps. It wasn’t the most jarring part of the movie, however. What I found way more shocking was the notion of a film in which the good guy is played by … the government.
Our times are awash in the swill of anti-government paranoia. On the far-right, Obama is a socialist and a fascist; government health care means state-sponsored death panels; and even poor old Americorps is a secret front for reeducation camps. (At least one of the Republican presidential candidates is a proponent of that last theory. I’ll let you guess which one.) Meanwhile, on the far-left-anarchist fringe you have the likes of Julian Assange of Wikileaks, to whom government is a purely malevolent force, a target for disruption. In his worldview, there is no function of government that is valuable and nothing about government that can be trusted.
Contagion serves as a panacea of sorts to all of this. The film begins with an ashen-faced Gwyneth Paltrow sitting in an airport bar on her way home to the U.S. from Hong Kong, cooing on her cell phone to a lover and coughing all over the peanuts. Within minutes of screen time, (warning, plot spoilers coming up) Paltrow—that is, Patient Zero Beth Emhoff—is dead in Minneapolis and so are people in Hong Kong, Japan, London, and Chicago. The virus, we learn, is unknown—about all a scientist can divine at first is that “somewhere in the world, the wrong bat met up with the wrong pig.”
The past few years have seen an uptick in literary and cinematic imaginings of the moment when our society disintegrates into chaos, and in nearly all of them the government is either corrupt to the core or simply absent. In The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, all authority has vanished from the world and marauding bands of “road agents” kill and eat the weak. In Blindness, a novel by Jose Saramago and also a movie, the government confines people who have been infected by a mysterious contagion of sightlessness in an old mental institution and abandons them. Within a day, those patients who have not entirely lost their sight are raping and terrorizing the blind. The common theme, of course, is that modernity is only a thin veneer on humanity’s true brutish nature. Every time I see one of these movies it reminds me to stock up on tins of beans so that when the apocalypse comes I can steer clear of the marauders and the looters, at least for a while.
Contagion takes a different approach. There is still plenty of chaos: Once the virus takes hold, police officers and nurses desert their posts; airports and stores are abandoned, and the inevitable looting sets in. But there is also a countervailing force. At the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Ellis Cheever directs the government response to the disease, dispatching Dr. Erin Mears to Minneapolis to investigate and halt its spread. Cheever is played by a very reassuring Laurence Fishburne, and Mears is played by Kate Winslet, who in real life recently rescued a 90-year old woman from a burning building, so from the start you know you’re in good hands. Also at the CDC, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) leads the effort to find a vaccine.
Because the conventions of this variety of disaster movie are so ingrained, I kept expecting one of these characters to screw up or to betray the public’s trust. Instead, they are amazingly good at their jobs and almost totally selfless. The relentlessly efficient Mears strides around Minneapolis trying to coordinate a quarantine and track down infected patients; when she wakes up with a hacking cough in her hotel room, her first call is to the front desk to get the name of the waiter who brought her room service. After several setbacks, Hextall develops a possible vaccine, and because there is no time for clinical trials, she injects herself, then goes to visit her infected father to find out if the antidote works. The only character who lets his concern for his loved ones cloud his judgment is Cheever, but his slip-up is a forgivably human one and later redeemed.
The wild card in the movie is a scruffy leftie blogger in San Francisco called Alan Krumwiede, played by Jude Law. I couldn’t actually tell whether his accent is supposed to be Cockney or Australian, but I suspect the latter, and that the resulting Assangian overtones are no coincidence. Krumwiede warns his millions of readers that the government and Big Pharma are in cahoots, concealing a simple herbal remedy called forsythia in order to reap massive profits from a vaccine. Again, according to political-thriller conventions, I fully expected him to uncover some ugly multinational corporate conspiracy. Instead, Krumwiede is conducting clandestine meetings on park benches with a hedge fund guy; people are rioting in pharmacies to try and get their hands on some forsythia; and sales of the herb are off the charts. As Krumweide roams the deserted streets in an improvised protective bubble suit, despite being dosed up with his supposed miracle cure, he becomes the film’s second virus, an amoral source of panic and suspicion, rumor and lies. It’s very satisfying when the cops finally arrest him for profiting from the sale of forsythia, although Krumweide’s readers naturally assume a government plot and chip in to pay his bail.
In Traffic, Soderbergh’s 2000 movie that exposed the futility of the war on drugs, the director arrived at a truly grim conclusion: Cartels or cops, nearly everyone was either corrupt or inept, and the rare exceptions were fighting a battle they could never hope to win. That’s not the case in Contagion, where ultimately scientific expertise and competence win out over chaos and self-serving venality. Perhaps that’s why, for a movie about a scary mega-virus that wipes out millions of people all over the globe, I found Contagion to be oddly comforting.
Rachel Morris is executive editor of The New Republic.