I thought Contagion—a thorough, stirring, but realistic look at what a catastrophic 21st-century viral epidemic might look like—was entirely a metaphor, and a brilliant one. Perusing over the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, I can tell many people disagree. Roughly half the critics seemed to think it was another disaster procedural, done by someone who does procedurals as well as anyone (Steven Soderbergh), but otherwise unremarkable. They responded less warmly.
David Denby of the New Yorker refers to the film as a defiant message against ‘magical thinking’: a pro-science and pro-government fable which celebrates the people who make rational decisions (often at extreme personal sacrifice) to protect the common good. I think I mostly agree, although the metaphor Denby sees is somewhat different from my own.
Which turns out to be the point, actually. If you want to make a good metaphor, then you can’t make it obvious what the analogy is. The rolling of the eyes will immediately commence, once the audience recognizes what you’re up to. Movies which succeed at metaphor invariably end up causing disagreements about what exactly the metaphor is. This is one of the diametrically opposite pleasures of movie-going: the intensely personal associations we make when something onscreen touches us in a way only we ourselves understand, as opposed to the collective joy of experiencing something together as a group (I imagine American moviegoers probably had reactions similar to the people sitting next to them, watching the Death Star blow up).
I couldn’t help but put Contagion into a post 9-11 context. The danger, a deadly flu-like virus the likes of which the world hasn’t encountered in a hundred years or more, is global in origin: a product of the shrinking modern world, which allows the “wrong pig to run across the wrong bat,” mashing together DNA fragments into terrifying mutating hybrids, which are allowed access to the entire globe by modern transportation within a matter of hours. It is a constant hazard of modern life: global vectors beyond control or comprehension will inevitably bring their troubles to our front door. Stop me if you can tell I’m trying to go somewhere with this.
If you can, and you roll your eyes, that’s fine. But I never rolled my eyes. Soderbergh is one of the hardest modern directors to read. All of his energy seems to be devoted to narrative requirements; rarely can you find indicators of what he wants you to think. This is, I suspect, sometimes just a cover. Soderbergh probably is very happy that David Denby finds Contagion to be a celebration of rational thinking. But that many others don’t speaks to the freedom Soderbergh allows his audience; a freedom which brings us around far more effectively than heavy-handedness.
The most moving parts of the film occur as we watch the appointed officials from the Center For Disease Control and World Health Organization face down disaster, acting with a dignity which rings so true that the note, clarion-clear and pitch-perfect, sustains itself for the duration of the picture, and even afterwards as you leave the theatre. The behavior of Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle’s characters as the crisis widens is astonishing—we’re witnessing modern-day bureaucrats in business skirts apply principles to their actions in a manner that 12th-century samurai might have found admirable. Contagion tells us (my personal interpretation, of course) that the troubles of the modern world are largely indecipherable. But responding to the troubles still mostly requires us to be good people. That is something we don’t necessarily need to try to understand. We just need to go ahead and do it.