Magazine | October 3, 2011, Issue

Going Viral

Marion Cotillard in Contagion (Warner Bros.)

Some of the scariest material that Stephen King has ever written — scarier, in its way, than anything in The Shining or ’Salem’s Lot or Pet Sematary — is contained in the first hundred-odd pages of his apocalyptic magnum opus, The Stand. There are no ghouls or vampires in those pages: Just the vivid and remorseless account of how a deadly supervirus, once freed from its home in a military laboratory, swiftly joyrides its way across the continental United States, passing from cop to waitress, patient to doctor, parent to child, as the Centers for Disease Control and the military frantically struggle to catch up.

I first read The Stand on a crowded summertime beach many years ago, and I remember looking up from the novel to stare with mounting paranoia at the bathers around me, suddenly seeing them only as 500 disease vectors baking in the sun.

In its most effective moments, Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded thriller Contagion captures exactly this kind of non-supernatural horror. The movie has the structure of a globalization message movie like Babel or Syriana or Soderbergh’s own Traffic, with various big-name actors headlining intersecting stories that link bats in Hong Kong to blogs in San Francisco to public buses in Chicago. But Contagion is less sentimentalized and more ruthlessly efficient than its predecessors in the genre, and for most of its running time its only real message is this: Be Very Afraid, and stock up on Purell.

The movie opens with a coughing Gwyneth Paltrow, playing an American executive en route home from a casino opening in Hong Kong, and taking a layover in Chicago to reconnect with an old flame. Her cuckolded husband, embodied by Matt Damon, welcomes her back to suburban Minneapolis soon afterward, and a few short scenes later she’s dead: Patient Zero in a pandemic that evokes SARS and H1N1, but proves far deadlier than both.

From Hong Kong, Minneapolis, and Chicago, the infection ripples outward across Asia and North America, killing millions within weeks. Borders are sealed, riots erupt, and the Internet goes wild with conspiracy theories. In Minneapolis, a CDC field operative (Kate Winslet) tries to manage the mounting chaos, throwing up makeshift hospitals in armories and schools. In Hong Kong, a World Health Organization official (Marion Cotillard) tries to trace the infection to its source. In Atlanta, the head of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne) tries to coordinate a national response, while one of his scientists (Jennifer Ehle) races to develop a vaccine. And from his well-trafficked Bay Area website, a sinister blogger (Jude Law) spreads claims of Big Pharma cover-ups and persuades the suffering to dose themselves with forsythia instead.

#page#Back in Minnesota, Damon’s character, now a widowed father, supplies the human center around which all of this action revolves. He’s apparently immune to the superflu, but his teenage daughter may not be, and in his efforts to quarantine her in the heart of a crowded, increasingly lawless suburb, we see what a pandemic looks like on the ground level — from the ransacked supermarkets and the emptied ATMs to the rank fear that attaches to even a casual encounter with another human being.

Contagion is more like a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller than a Stephen King novel, so the audience senses that civilization probably isn’t going to collapse completely. (The disease’s infection rate, established early on, clearly isn’t dire enough for that.) What becomes apparent as the story moves along, though, is that this movie is something more unusual as well: It’s a pro-establishment thriller, in which not only scientists but also bureaucrats and federal agents and even the U.S. military (embodied by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, as the rear admiral working with the CDC) are the good guys, and instead of the usual run of sinister military-industrial-complex types the only villain is Law’s rogue blogger, ranting about a corporate-government cover-up while he profits from his own misinformation.

I’m of two minds about this theme. It’s always nice to see Hollywood debunk conspiracy theories rather than going all-in for the paranoid style, and there’s something refreshing about a disaster movie in which human institutions and their leaders turn out to be up to the task at hand, and the fate of the world doesn’t end up in the hands of a teenager or a crank scientist or a superhero (or some combination thereof).

On the other hand, the cartoonish contrast between Contagion’s blogger villain — the handsome Law is equipped with a snaggled front tooth and the last name Krumwiede, in case we didn’t get the point — and the heroic bureaucrats of the CDC and the World Health Organization eventually feels absurd in its own right. By the time a Homeland Security agent is telling him, “If I could throw your computer in jail, I would” — a line that’s clearly supposed to inspire cheers from the audience — Contagion’s pro-establishment bias has stopped seeming novel, and started seeming a little creepy instead.

“Nothing spreads like fear,” runs the movie’s tag line, but anyone who thinks that bloggers spread fear more effectively than the mainstream media has clearly never turned on cable television. I can believe that global civilization might be imperiled by the cross-breeding of a pig virus and a bat virus deep in the forests of East Asia. I’m less persuaded that it’s imperiled by the blogosphere.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Politics & Policy

Patently Absurd

In 1994, Claudio Ballard was an unemployed computer programmer with a great idea: a system to scan paper financial documents and store them on a secure server. Ballard built a ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Going Viral

Some of the scariest material that Stephen King has ever written — scarier, in its way, than anything in The Shining or ’Salem’s Lot or Pet Sematary — is contained ...
Politics & Policy

Bless the Beasts

Some virtues are by accidents of history associated with utopianism, hostility to private property, anti-clericalism, and other core beliefs of the Left. I can scandalize a yoga instructor anywhere in ...
Politics & Policy

A Long Red Sunset

One of the hardy staples of American history is the question of what happened to American socialism. As the only industrialized nation in the world in which avowedly socialist or ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

The Ron Paul Movement Rides On It is not surprising that with the polls ranking him third nationally, Ron Paul would finally make the cover of National Review (“Ron Paul’s Last ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Bad news for the Democrats: It turns out some of those people who cling bitterly to their religion are Orthodox Jews in Queens. ‐ The great strength of the conservative ...
The Bent Pin

Terminal Eloquence

This column was supposed to be about presidential personality problems. I should have started writing it sooner to give myself plenty of time but I was irresistibly distracted by a ...
Athwart

Proper Aim

Ask any employer, and you’ll hear the same lament: We’d love to hire people, but we need an inexplicable modification of the tax code exquisitely calibrated to provide a tiny ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

IN THESE PHOTOGRAPHS, MY RIVAL . . . grips a tapered wine glass, nearly drained, Beneath a gold band and engagement gem; Ham-fisted, left-hand fingers round the stem, Forefinger lifted, fattened with the strain. The ...
Happy Warrior

Flight

At the start of the summer, I attended a graduation ceremony in Vermont, for which a bigshot speaker had been flown up from New York. “Your world is changing so ...

Most Popular

White House

Politico Doubles Down on Fake Turnberry Scandal

It's tough to be an investigative reporter. Everybody who feeds you a tip has an axe to grind. Or, alternatively, you find yourself going, "I wonder if . . . ?" You put in your research, you talk to lots of people, you accumulate a huge pile of information, but you still haven't proved your hypothesis. A wise ... Read More
White House

Rachel Maddow’s Turnberry Tale

To a certain kind of Rachel Maddow viewer, there are few more titillating preludes to a news segment than the one she delivered Monday: “If you have not seen it yet, you are going to want to sit down.” Maddow’s story began, as many of her stories do, with President Trump, this time focused on his hotel ... Read More
Culture

Four Cheers for Incandescent Light Bulbs

It brought me much -- indeed, too much -- joy to hear of the Trump administration's rollback of restrictions on incandescent light bulbs, even if the ban will remain in place. The LED bulbs are terrible. They give off a pitiable, dim, and altogether underwhelming "glow," one that never matched the raw (if ... Read More