SPOILER WARNING: Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011) may contain numerous characters succumbing to their fearful instincts, but the movie seeks to prevent its audience from doing just that. Instead of creating a narrative that tells people that they should be afraid and that the world is a dangerous place that they cannot protect themselves in, the film instead seeks to instill confidence in its viewers that the situation can and will work out. While the obvious contradiction to this statement is the fact that millions of people die in the film, this fact does not sway the equally strong fact that the film does not mince words when it comes to the nature of the world. Contagion does not play favorites with any of its characters, no matter how integral they may seem to the plot or to the sensibilities of the audience. The film replaces this feature, which is found in numerous films where as a result tension is almost completely absent, with an overall sense of the inevitable march of the world. Millions die, millions more fall ill to the new and dangerous virus that Contagion follows, but all the while the film balances the shots of human suffering with shots of those who’s mission it is to solve situations such as these doing just that. Contagion displays an unwavering faith in the system that ultimately solves the film’s respective crisis, and it evidences to its audience that they should do the same.
What Contagion is lacking is a cast of senseless characters who make decisions that make little logical sense. Even the conspiracy theorist blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) acts on a relatively logical path considering his mission of only serving himself regardless of the cost. On a less sinister note are the characters of Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), and Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon). Though these are far from the only characters in the film, their actions are some of the most notable and also the most rational. Dr. Cheever calmly conducts outbreak response from his office at the FDA while also keeping in contact with his field agent Dr. Meyers. Both of them are understandably and visibly concerned about the current state of affairs, but neither of them ever do anything irrational that would cause them to lose credibility. Even Dr. Cheever’s one breach of protocol, telling his wife Aubrey (Sanaa Lathan) to leave Chicago before the quarantine is enforced, is understandable to the audience as he is visibly very concerned for her safety. But more important than this element of his action is the fact that he does not endanger anyone or anything by way of his actions. He continues to do his job to the best of his ability and this one fault in judgment is one that is far from enough to completely undermine him or fault all of his credibility.
Similarly, Dr. Hextall takes a small risk when she injects herself with the first successful strain of the potential vaccine for the virus. Though the vaccine has been proven to work on monkeys, human trials have not yet been conducted. But Dr. Hextall, whom the film has consistently evidenced to be a responsible, rational, and intelligent is possibly the only character that can perform such an action in the film and still remain a reliable and believable character. Her action is aided by her telling of the actions of Dr. Barry Mashall whom proved that bacteria causes stomach ulcers by infecting himself. But this story is hardly necessary when all of Dr. Hextall’s actions are considered together. Throughout the entirety of the film she has only followed protocol and worked tirelessly and efficiently to solve the mystery of the virus that she is fighting. Her action of injecting herself is simply a logical step that follows her tireless dedication and faith that the system of actions that she is following will ultimately solve the problem. In many ways, this action is telling of the entire film, as the set order is followed to the conclusion at which the problem is solved, whatever it may be.
Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) is one of the few characters in the film that actually advances the plot by way of breaking protocol. His decision to not destroy the virus as he has been instructed and to instead run tests on it is ultimately a critical step towards the formulation of the vaccine, and it is only because he has done something that he was instructed not to. All of his actions following this one are perfectly logical, and in many ways his action to ignore the orders of Dr. Hextall is logical as well. He did not and knew that he would not endanger anyone by way of his actions, and in many ways his unexpected action forewarns of the unpredictability of the virus itself. But Dr. Sussman is practically alone in his resistance to the order of the system by way of someone whom is a part of it. It should also be noted that his resistance is fairly minimal considering his immediate action of sending his results to the CDC. He does not exploit his findings for his own gain, and instead he seeks to and does help the overall system that he too has faith in.
Faith in the system is something that Contagion clearly has. Despite the aforementioned logical gaps perpetuated by way of a few of the characters, the film is lacking characters that consistently make decisions that would push them beyond the realm of believability. Contagion does not contain a true villain. While Alan may seem to fill this roll, he is really nothing more than a pest that is simply feeding the fears of others and profiting from it. Even the character of Real Admiral Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston), who’s archetype is generally relegated to that of an antagonist, is instead presented as a logical and effective force. RADM Haggerty works closely with Dr. Cheever throughout the entire film, and they listen to and take advice from each other. He is even shown to recognize the ultimate ineffectiveness of some of the actions that are being taken, but he still enforces them nonetheless as he also recognizes their necessity. And ultimately, the world is saved in part because of all of these actions. The vaccine is discovered by way of ordered lab processes and the actions taken to contain the outbreak are effective enough that many people do survive that might would not have otherwise.
But while the film may consistently demonstrate the effectiveness of those whom are following the protocol to try to save the day, it is sure to demonstrate the effect that fear takes on others. If there is a villain in Contagion, it is fear. The nameless masses of people featured in the film often fall to the clutches of fear and resort to actions that only benefit themselves. Most of these incidents, from the looting of a grocery store to the possible murder of a homeowner, are seen through the eyes of Mitch. Though he may witness these atrocities, Mitch stays resolute to his commitment to maintain the safety of his daughter and himself. Because he is immune to the virus, Mitch is given a head start on keeping himself levelheaded. The fear that others are seen to be feeling and acting on is understandable, but this does not justify their actions and the film ensures this by displaying them as nothing more than a dangerous mob. There is never a point in Contagion when a character gives a speech attempting to justify his or her irrational actions, and this is mostly because the film does not characterize anyone who acts without logical reason. Once again, Alan is the only one that tries to justify actions counter to the order of the system, but none of this is counter to his well-established character and therefore it makes logical sense in the world of the film, even though he is ultimately nothing more than a voice of chaos.
Contagion does not hinge itself on needless dramatics or twists and turns. Instead, it follows and careful and calculating order and everything is ultimately resolved by way of this. The vaccine for the virus arrives as a result of these actions, not as a result of some last-minute desperate attempt. Countless lives are at stake but the film’s characters do not allow this to cloud their judgment and instead they take this fact as simply their motivation. Dr. Mears is shown to encounter some senseless human resistance in her efforts, but the film does not needlessly dwell on this source of drama to the point that it never has a true resolution. The same is true for the kidnapping of Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard). The film presents the beginning and end of this incident, but it does not dwell on any of the events in between. The kidnappers are barely characterized as the film has little use for them. They are acting counter to the greater system that is at work and so Contagion does not show all of their actions. Their actions are not rewarded either as they are given a placebo for their efforts. Dr. Orantes is apparently disturbed by these actions, but the film is not and it abandons her as soon as she begins to act counter to the established order. A similar treatment is given every time that someone works against the system that the film seeks to justify in that it does not give them screen time. Contagion views fear and its product, irrationality, as the enemy, and it does not give room to the voices that would seek to perpetuate it.