The dance of Death

For those of us lucky enough to be born in America in recent times, the only one of the dreaded Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that most of us will encounter up close in our lifetimes is Death – or so we believe. Sure, War never really goes away; but no foreign armies are marching through our neighborhoods, and the draft has been inactivated, so we don’t have to fight our government’s battles overseas anymore if we don’t want to. And although a growing minority of us go hungry or are chronically malnourished, we still have some social safety nets that keep wholesale Famine at bay.

Ah, but then there’s one more Horseman to consider. Most of us will indeed end up dying from some disease, but nearly always of the sort that attacks one person at a time – not from widespread Pestilence. There are few people left alive who remember the last time that particular pale rider rampaged through the land: the horrific Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. We may experience contagion scares now and then, unsettled by media hype about threats like West Nile virus, Ebola, swine flu and SARS, but they never turn out to be as bad as advertised.

After all, we’ve got modern science to protect us now, right? It’s not like we’re living in the 14th century, when the first appearance in Europe of bubonic plague wiped out an estimated third of the entire populace within two years. People had no idea about germ theory back then, or that the Black Death was spread by fleas and rats; and they certainly didn’t have access to simple antibiotics that could easily have controlled even such a deadly illness, since it’s bacterial. “Oh happy posterity who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable,” wrote Petrarch after the death of his beloved Laura during the plague’s first visitation in 1348-50.

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Still, there’s something deeply embedded in our brain circuitry that responds with the sweaty palms and elevated pulses beloved by market researchers to tales about uncontrollable epidemics of fatal infectious disease. The entertainment industry continues to find profitability in milking that primal fear, with movies like 12 Monkeys, Outbreak and 28 Days Later, not to mention the TV mini-series version of Stephen King’s The Stand. (The latter, in fact, is slated to be remade by Warner Brothers, beginning in 2013, into two or more films by the team of David Yates and Steve Kloves, who have finally run out of Harry Potter installments to keep them busy.) Well, not surprisingly, Pestilence is back again this week in a theatre near you, in the form of Steven Soderbergh’s tensely paced, mostly credible and well-researched Contagion. As blockbuster disaster movies go, Soderbergh and his big-name ensemble cast do as good a job as might be hoped and then some.

Contagion starts off on Day 2 of a worldwide pandemic with a cough (in cinematic semiotics, as sure a predictor of a character’s impending demise as Chekhov’s gun on the wall is of a violent incident) from Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Beth Emhoff. Headed home to her family in Minneapolis after a business trip to Hong Kong, her itinerary has included a visit to a casino in Macao and a tryst with an old flame on a layover in Chicago. In flashbacks to this journey throughout the movie, the camera points out practically everything that Beth touches, every person with whom she makes skin contact. All is relevant to some degree, because Beth is the first known human carrier of a brand-new, rapidly mutating variant of bird flu virus that will go on to kill tens of millions of people in a matter of months.

Paltrow’s is the first of many characters in this movie to whom we are introduced just long enough to be slightly bummed out when they die (and to the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t die prettily, with hair unmussed and mascara unsmeared, in the silly Hollywood tradition of films like Terms of Endearment). As the body count mounts to heart-numbing proportions, continuity of narrative and emotional engagement on the viewer’s part are provided by a small number of players whose characters survive at least a while, notably Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle and Kate Winslet. All are confronted with choices between self-interest and more altruistic goals that provide crux points in the unfolding drama.

Fishburne is the story’s anchor as Dr. Ellis Cheever, the earnest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention honcho who persists in his efforts to ensure that a vaccine is developed rapidly and distributed fairly, while attempting to contain public panic, in spite of undermining actions by other government officials, each of whom has his own agenda. As Beth’s widower Mitch, who proves immune to the virus and is trying to protect his teenage daughter from exposure, Damon illustrates the impact on the home front of the plague itself, the necessarily slow scientific and bureaucratic response to it and the panic and social breakdown that follow.

As Dr. Erin Mears, the investigator deputized by Cheever to track down the deadly bug’s vector into the US, Winslet does the best she can with a role that’s written by Scott Z. Burns to be a bit excessively noble and self-sacrificing (you will either tear up or roll your eyes at her final act). Ehle gets to have a little more fun as Dr. Ally Hextall, a researcher who has the decency to feel guilty for being given all the credit for a vaccine breakthrough that wouldn’t have been possible had she not forced a consultant with inadequate security clearance, Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), to clean out his desk and hand over his samples to her. Cotillard supplies a bit of a side excursion into international intrigue as Dr. Leonora Orantes, a WHO official investigating the virus’ apparent source in Hong Kong who is kidnapped – the ransom to consist of an advance shipment of the brand-new vaccine for the kidnapper’s flu-ravaged home village.

Government, although often hamstrung by its own complicated structures, is pointedly not depicted as the bad guy in this mega-disaster scenario. Although not perfect people, the scientists in particular are portrayed as responsible and hardworking. The most obviously unsympathetic character is Alan Krumwiede, the conspiracy-theorist blogger played with furniture-chewing gusto by Jude Law. He’s not just an opportunistic, attention-seeking anti-science wingnut who’s accusing the government of being in bed with Big Pharm; he also has quite a bit of money invested in the commercial success of the homeopathic remedy that he’s touting as a better cure than the CDC’s vaccine. You’ll never be able to look at springtime’s cheery yellow blooms of forsythia in quite the same way again after seeing Contagion.

It is often observed that natural disasters can bring out both the best and the worst in people. “The plague was not the kind of calamity that inspired mutual help,” wrote ace historian Barbara Tuchman of the Black Death in her mesmerizing 1978 book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. “Its loathesomeness and deadliness did not herd people together in mutual distress, but only prompted their desire to escape each other.” We get to see a lot of that kind of bad behavior in Contagion, in terms of both mass hysteria and the cynical manipulation of public opinion based on fear. But, as in most good storytelling, the characters whom the viewer comes to care about most are the ones who ultimately make ethical choices based on concern for others, even at a time when all are potential victims of an organism that owns no ethos.

Much has been made about Soderbergh’s intense visual emphasis on the seemingly limitless vectors for transmission of a killer virus in our hyperconnected modern world. Indeed, although I’m by no means a germophobe, I did find myself acutely aware of everything that I touched in the hours immediately following my viewing of Contagion. Whether a pandemic as virulent and resistant to treatment as that depicted in the film is something we really need to fear remains a matter of speculation, but it does raise some valid concerns, especially about the response capacity of bureaucracy-bound, competitive public agencies. Although Contagion may be entertaining fiction – a fable, as Petrarch would put it – it would be unwise to assume that the Horseman of Pestilence has gone into permanent retirement just yet.

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