‘Contagion,’ the Movie That Predicted Our Pandemic, Is Really About Our World Falling Apart (Column)

Owen Gleiberman

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In “Contagion,” the 2011 Steven Soderbergh drama that predicted, in eyebrow-raising, scientifically rigorous, this-could-be-happening-to-you detail, exactly what’s happening to us right now (incompetent trash-talking authoritarian president? — that plot point must have been discarded for being something you could only see in the movies), Matt Damon, as run-of-the-mill Minnesota guy Mitch Emhoff, sits in a hospital talking to Kate Winslet, who plays the epidemic intelligence officer investigating the spread of a mysterious virus. Emhoff’s wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, was one of the first people to catch the virus and die. In case he thought his mood couldn’t get any lower, Winslet’s investigator has news for him: It seems that the virus may have passed between Paltrow’s Beth and someone she saw during a layover in Chicago — the man she was having a relationship with before she got married.

“Did we get this from him?” asks Damon, his face a daze of fury that shows you he’s processing two unsupportable things at once: the atrociously timed revelation that his wife cheated on him — and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the devastating possibility that had she not cheated on him, she might be alive right now. He wants to know if that’s the case, but Winslet isn’t allowed to tell him. “Look at where I am here,” he says in the heat of his confusion. Then he says it again. “Look at where I am here!” But where, in fact, is he? He no longer knows which end is up.

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That, it turns out, is the film’s defining emotion. “Contagion” is a bad-dream biomedical disaster movie whose power is that it refuses, at every moment, to be “science fiction.” The film charts the ways a virus takes over a society, eating away at it from the inside. The feeling it gives you isn’t just, “Look, this terrible thing could happen.” The feeling it gives you is: All bets are off. The center isn’t holding. We don’t know what’s coming.

That’s a feeling that you might have about a lethally infectious virus, but in the America of today it’s also a feeling that describes where life was headed before the coronavirus hit. The withering of the middle class. The rise of Donald Trump. The rise of an insidious hall-of-mirrors media culture that makes “reality” just one more TV channel you can choose to watch (or not). Coronavirus is a scary sickness, but it’s also piggybacking on our entropy, which is one more reason why it has ratcheted up the everyday-nightmare quality of our lives. “Contagion” taps into all of that; if you watch it now, it’s a movie that kicks you in the gut and the brain.

Here at Variety, we decided to launch our new Home Movies banner with “Contagion,” because even though the film has been talked and written about ever since the coronavirus hit, it has a life-imitates-art-imitates-life resonance that has only grown with each passing day of the pandemic.

“Contagion” is scarcely the same film it was in 2011, when its what-if? scenario left you wondering how close to reality it actually got. It’s not even the same film it was six weeks ago, now that the trajectory it describes — a nation in free fall — has been colored in by degrees. In upcoming Home Movies columns, we’ll recommend films of every stripe, from every era, to experience during this shelter-in-place moment; many of them will be great escapes. “Contagion” is different — a lavishly disturbing but humane thriller that refuses to provide an easy escape hatch for our anxieties. Yet if you’re worried that it might be too much of a bad thing, don’t be. The movie provides a dark catharsis, and it shows you a light at the end of the tunnel you can believe in.

Much of the drama of “Contagion,” of course, now lies in the premonitory mastery with which it anticipates our current crisis. The screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, immersed himself in the medical minutiae of deadly pandemics and in learning what goes on behind the closed doors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. (Dear trolls: Start posting your conspiracy-theory comments about what goes on behind their closed doors now.) The film’s verisimilitude is so uncanny that one of its crucial details — the RO, or R-naught metric, which represents the number of people anyone carrying the virus will, on average, infect — earned its own New York Times story only last week.

The film’s consistency of overlap with our own situation is nothing short of eerie, from the on-the-fly shopping runs to the enforced standing apart (here it’s 10 feet instead of six), from the warnings that people should avoid touching their faces to the controversial slow creep of school closings (“And who stays home with the kids? People who work at stores, government workers, people that work at hospitals?”), from Sanjay Gupta on the TV to the obsession with an unproven (in this case, homeopathic) miracle cure, from the growing perception that infected people can be asymptomatic to the makeshift hospital facilities — here it’s a converted hockey rink — where bodies pile up until no graveyard can take them.

About the only thing the film doesn’t have is a shelter-in-place order, though Fishburne’s CDC official uses the phrase “social distancing,” describing it as “no hand-shaking, staying home when you’re sick.” For a moment you hear that and think: If only! The most telling thing that Fishburne’s stoic officer says, after a Navy admiral (Bryan Cranston) fills him in on what’s happening, is: “People will panic. The virus will be the least of our worries. It will tip over now.”

The sense that life can tip over — our individual lives, the collective life of our society — is one of the reigning fears of the pandemic we’re now in the thick of. The darkest moments in “Contagion” aren’t about people dying; they’re about the potential social breakdown bred by economic scarcity. I remember when I first saw the film nine years ago, my reaction to these scenes was something like, “Oh, here comes the obligatory fighting-in-the-bread-line moment.” When I saw it recently, I thought, “Okay, at least we’re a long way from that.” Then a moment later I thought: Are we? With a president who feeds on anarchy, saying anything that comes into his head, the potential for all of this to go “Mad Max” certainly exists. The whole world-spinning-out-of-control form of “Contagion” is dislocating, and that’s part of its artistry.

In the end, the movie leaves you with an image that’s haunting in its hope: Damon’s daughter is having her senior prom — at home. It’s just her and boyfriend, dancing in the living room, which has been decorated with token prom spangles. It’s the prom as sheltering-in-place, an image that when you see it today says: Yes, we can come out the other side of this. But the movie also ends by revealing, for the first time, Day One of the pandemic — we see how Paltrow, the first to spread the virus, actually caught it. It feels momentous, because it’s Soderbergh’s idea of a dark joke that is also a warning. “Contagion” says, “We’re doing this to ourselves.” Maybe owning that is how we stop it.

“Contagion” is available on Hulu and for rental on iTunes, Amazon Prime and other streaming services.

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