Politics & Policy

A Real-Life Contagion?

Gwyneth Paltrow succumbs in Contagion (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Ebola is much less scary than Hollywood’s 2011 medical thriller. Or is it?

While disposing of a body in a mass grave, one man in a hazmat suit turns to another and asks, “When did we run out of body bags?”

“Two days ago.”

Fortunately, the scene is only from the movie Contagion, though it’s probably close enough to what is going on in parts of West Africa right now.

The 2011 hit about a runaway virus that kills millions has probably come to mind to more than a few people of late as we watch governments struggle to contain Ebola and reassure the public.

So far, real life is much less scary. In the film, a bat virus finds its way into a pig and then into a promiscuous American played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who quickly dies as “patient zero” of a horrifying global pandemic. Ironically, as America’s Ebola patient zero lay dying in a Dallas hospital last week, Paltrow was playing herself at a $15,000-per-plate fundraiser in her Los Angeles home and lavishing praise on the president. “You’re so handsome that I can’t speak properly,” Paltrow gushed. She also said, “It would be wonderful if we were able to give this man all of the power that he needs to pass the things that he needs to pass.”

Even without the aid of a pandemic, Paltrow can deliver a sickening performance.

There have been plenty of movies about deadly viruses running amok. But most involve dark conspiracies, or aliens, or at the very least secret agendas and government corruption. The awful 1995 film Outbreak is typical of the genre: Good scientists fight an evil military determined to keep its hands on a biological superweapon at all costs, even if it means killing Americans. (Oh, sorry, spoiler alert.)

Contagion broke away from the shackles of the genre. Ross Douthat put it well in an essay for National Review, calling it a “pro-establishment thriller.” Government officials, the scientists, even the military were all competent and determined to do the right thing.

It was a fascinating departure from the speak-truth-to-power cinema of the Bush years and even Hollywood’s paranoia in the Clinton years. (In the movie version of The X-Files, FEMA was a villainous cabal.)

In Contagion, the only real villain was a blogger, Alan Krumwiede (played by Jude Law). He refuses to take the government at its word. He disseminates lies for personal gain. He questions the motives of the mainstream media. At one point a federal agent tells Krumwiede, “If I could throw your computer in jail, I would.”

Given the timing, I think it’s no accident Hollywood produced Contagion. After all, Obama was going to restore faith in government. The smart and decent people were in charge. Under a different president, Contagion might have been a paranoid delusion, a la Oliver Stone’s JFK, and Krumwiede might have been a left-wing hero like Edward Snowden or an I.F. Stone-style crusader. But under Obama, he had to be more like a cartoonish Matt Drudge.

As Obama would tell Ohio State students in 2013, “Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works.” (Fun fact: A few days later the IRS scandal broke.)

Again, under Obama, right-thinking people don’t question power like a Krumwiede. They, like a Paltrow, wish the already-powerful “all of the power” they need.

We now have our own version of Contagion playing out in real time. The disease is different, of course, and so is the response. Still, I have little doubt that the real-life players at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health are as well-intentioned as their cinematic versions.

But they aren’t nearly as reassuring. They keep telling us they know what can’t happen right up until the moment it happens. They put the theory of their expertise ahead of the facts on the ground. A nurse contracts Ebola and the experts immediately blame a “breach of protocol” they cannot identify. Loyal bureaucrats rush to blame the lack of a vaccine on budget cuts. Democrats point at Republicans. Republicans respond that the administration diverted billions to lesser priorities.

No one is blaming the bloggers yet. But that might change if the supply of body bags runs low.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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