Lessons from ‘Contagion’

As the coronavirus pandemic continues its solemn march across the country (there are now nearly 200,000 cases in the U.S., and that’s only those who’ve been tested), Americans everywhere are turning to the leading expert on infectious disease: a Matt Damon movie.

“Contagion,” released in 2011, has taken on mythological proportions in the last few weeks as “the movie that predicted COVID-19.” Despite high-profile theatrical releases being rushed to streaming services, “Contagion” has remained towards the top of every watchlist. Why?

Directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “Magic Mike”), “Contagion” was a modest hit in the fall of 2011 but failed to garner awards season attention, ultimately fading into the background of the acclaimed filmmaker’s catalog. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, the film follows medical researchers and public health officials as they rush to identify the cause of — and a vaccine for — a mysterious new illness. Spoilers from here on out.

While the circumstances in which “Contagion” has found a second life are both frightening and uncertain, it couldn’t have happened to a finer film. Like so much of Soderbergh’s work, “Contagion” is more like a well-oiled machine than a movie. The editing by Stephen Mirrione is fantastic; he cuts between half a dozen plotlines with absolute ease and keeps the story moving at the perfect pace. The score by Clint Mansell is also superb: a droning sonic nightmare that splices techno, percussion and ambient noise to make your blood pressure spike. Finally, the cinematography by Soderbergh himself brilliantly brings to life the pathogen, lingering on doorknobs, countertops and bus poles as if to give the germs a little screen time.

But as impressive as “Contagion” may be on a technical level, it’s the script by Scott Z. Burns that’s kept people talking. There’s no doubt an eerie quality to the accuracy of his predictions: social distancing, school closures and supermarket scuffles all come into play, and his fictional virus even originates in China. But “Contagion” covers nearly six months of the outbreak, while we’ve only experienced a few weeks. Can even more of his predictions come true?

Not necessarily. After all, “Contagion” is a Hollywood thriller; while realistic to some degree, its scares are much pulpier than its premise. For one thing, its virus is 10 times as deadly as COVID-19. Sure, they’re both respiratory, but the fictional illness can kill in a day, often in the form of a violent seizure perfect for dramatic effect. Similarly, society in “Contagion” spirals into chaos within a month of the outbreak; unless I’m a little too good at quarantining, that has not (and will not) be the case.

But by the same token, the conflict in “Contagion” wraps up much more quickly than we have any reason to believe. Six months might sound grim, but the only reason a vaccine becomes available in “Contagion” is because one of the characters sacrifices herself to science; she proves the drug’s effectiveness by testing it on herself, forgoing human trials in yet another dramatic moment that doesn’t happen anywhere but the movies.

So why are we watching? Perhaps it’s to see competent bureaucrats doing their jobs; a reprieve from the Ringling Bros. circus that’s currently being streamed from the White House. Perhaps it’s to see how bad things can get; pre-emptive rationalization of the apocalypse.

Or maybe we shouldn’t be watching at all. The coronavirus isn’t in “Contagion.” It’s here, in real life. You have no obligation to keep up with the news; believe me, it’s not getting better. But if you’re going to escape, escape with family. Escape with friends.

We will get through this together.

This article was originally published on April 2, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.


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