I happened to see Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion on September 10th, and then wrote this article mostly on the morning of the 11th, with the 9/11 memorials playing on TV. It’s a productive juxtaposition. 9/11 is the preeminent modern example of a swerve into the previously unimaginable, completely changing the economic and geopolitical narrative of the subsequent decade from what it might have been otherwise. As the coverage demonstrates, one can submit to it as an event beyond analysis and normal commentary, or else appropriate it as the basis for a thousand ideological pretexts and thought experiments. Soderbergh’s film takes a comparable, but even more terrifying premise. It starts with a cough, belonging to a corporate executive on her way home from a business trip and feeling lousy; a day later, she’s dead. Similar outbreaks take place in Hong Kong, in China, one victim rapidly triggering others. The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization tune in; so does the blogosphere. Within a week, tens of millions of fatalities are predicted, with accompanying mass societal upheaval and economic chaos.
This is of course a staggeringly rich starting point – a hundred filmmakers might take it from there, with minimal overlap in what they made of it. Actually, Soderbergh himself, given his versatile productivity, might be capable of those hundred different movies. On this occasion though, he chose to emphasize sleek, slick storytelling, underlining the linkage to the disaster movie genre by deploying an almost excessively notable cast (three Oscar-winning actresses – Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard - as well as Matt Damon, Jude Law and others). This works exceptionally well – the film is compelling from beginning to end. It marshals a mind-boggling array of characters, locations and situations without ever diluting the seriousness of the premise or succumbing to hollow action movie momentum. And of course, it’s endlessly thought-provoking, and seemingly informative about matters such as disease containment protocols.
The problem – although it doesn’t feel like a big one while you’re watching it – is that, not for the first time with Soderbergh, you miss the wildness and revelation that characterizes art rather than instruction. Just as his Ocean’s Eleven series carried the illusion of fun rather than the real thing, Contagion so successfully assumes the form and content of something that’s freaking us out that you may need to step back afterwards to realize it actually didn’t. The film opens the box, neatly lays out its contents, then closes it back up again; the closing sequence, looping back to the beginning, emphasizes the movie’s construction as a movie rather than real-world possibilities and consequences. There are certainly loose ends in the storytelling, but they don’t carry any particular ominousness.
The prior week, I’d rewatched Sidney Lumet’s 1976 Network, still regarded of course as a classic. The film remains remarkably relevant, although maybe it’s largely that ever since the TV business was created, it’s been in the process of lowering its standards. Lumet had a lot in common with Soderbergh – they’re both versatile, eclectic, socially conscious, with an impressive roster of hits and some notable flops. Network isn’t showy – it has a stripped-down, unfussy aesthetic; the point is that the erosion of our presumed values is happening in plain sight, as a consequence of deliberate corporate engineering. But many of its details – like the prime time hour built around a fringe radical group and their weekly crimes - are deliberately absurd, even if reality TV and other advances might be striving hard to make them less so. And Paddy Chayefsky’s writing is remarkably florid and ornate, full of actor-friendly speeches delivered both on-air (by Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more” newscaster) and off- (by William Holden’s “I have primal doubts” executive); their performances and others are this close to sailing over the top. The point is that Network, for all its establishment credentials, always exhibits the exhilaration of performance, of testing its own limits; if you assume no risk of falling, how do you hope to fly?
Contagion doesn’t attempt to strike up that kind of implied conversation with the viewer. Soderbergh has always liked low-key, unfussy actors like Damon and George Clooney, and just about everyone in the film adheres to that playbook. It feels like an act of witness rather than engagement, with many of the elisions and omissions in the narrative contributing to that sense. For example, at one point we see riots breaking out, stores being looted; brawling in the streets and people getting murdered in their homes. Later on, the film depicts people lining up for food packages, which run out long before the line does, precipitating more spontaneous violence. You expect the film to extend this portrayal of looming anarchy, but instead it largely drops it; it seems that society is stabilized, or claws its way through, but we have no feeling for how that happens. Similarly, someone mentions the danger of eroding confidence precipitating a run on the banks; based on the degree of disruption depicted, the country (the world?) must be plunged into depression, but Soderbergh doesn’t pursue that strand either.
But then, even if the film were a ten-part mini-series, it would still be easy to identify omissions in the treatment of such a sprawling topic. You could hypothesize, even, that these omissions are central to the point, that the totality of such an event will always get away from us; no matter how diligent our scrutiny of it, some of that scrutiny will be focused in the wrong place. The reaction to 9/11 exposed the incongruities (some would say perversions) in our political calculus – the risk of losing lives to terrorism is seemingly worth eradicating whatever the cost; other, much more tangible and immediate risks, aren’t worth addressing at all. Some lives lost must never be forgotten; others, sacrificed with no more culpability but with less visibility, aren’t worth noting even at the time. You might get angry at it, but most people, if they register such things at all, probably just get weary.
This often seems to characterize the reaction to the major Western contagion of our time – economic insecurity, unemployment and hardship. Measured by the basic criterion of whether a country adequately functions for the people who constitute it, it’s a disaster, but one that can always be shoved from the headlines by splashier threats. The London riots and Greek demonstrations show what seems obvious – that some people might at least temporarily break under the strain. But for now those are exceptions to an oddly suppressed, undeveloped narrative. Maybe, as in Contagion, things will turn around, and many of the current traumas will be shoved back in the box without the rest of us ever knowing they existed. Or maybe we don’t understand the incubation period and the degree of communicability of what we’ve hatched.