These days the word ”political” is typically used as an insult. It’s meant to convey pettiness, sniping, and an inability to put the common good first. So it may sound like faint praise when I call Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s superbly made, beyond-unsettling scientific thriller about the spread of a virus, the best political — and the most political — Hollywood movie of 2011. The description may seem like a stretch, but that’s really a tribute to the stealth with which the movie’s perceptive argument for the important role of government burrows its way into your mind.
When I left the theater after seeing Contagion, I wasn’t thinking about politics. Mostly I was wishing the guy ahead of me would stop coughing onto the escalator handrail, wondering how carefully they clean other people’s eyeball residue off those 3-D glasses between movies, and resolving not to touch the germy surface of anything ever again. But the next night I turned on CNN’s Tea Party/Republican presidential debate and I suddenly felt Contagion back in my bloodstream. Here were two hours in which eight candidates practically tripped over one another to win bragging rights about who would do the quickest job of downsizing the federal government. Listening to them, I realized that I had just seen a movie that does what few recent films (or politicians) have dared — it makes a cogent case for a large, activist, well-staffed government bureaucracy that has a track record of cooperating with other nations. Contagion does not contend that all spending is wasteful, or that all regulations are useless or obstructive. In fact, the movie argues that if we give in to those angry quasi-populist fantasies, we’re going to be in very deep trouble the next time a catastrophe comes along.
Contagion is ballsy enough to put forth that currently unpopular theory, but also smart enough not to overstate it. (Spoilers ahead, so cover your eyes. Also your mouth and nose, please.) One of the film’s many protagonists — most of them scientists, researchers, and administrators trying to fight the lethal virus — is a federal official, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control. And he’s not infallible; in fact, at a key moment and for a very human reason, he behaves unethically, and possibly even immorally, protecting a loved one at the potential expense of the public good. Cheever is a decent man who does a bad thing, and in the end — largely because of effective government oversight — we learn that he is going to pay for it. What Contagion suggests most daringly is that the system, when manned by good and smart people, ultimately works. It posits that although every institution is as flawed as the individuals within it, given a choice of where to place your faith, government isn’t necessarily a bad way to go. Especially considering the alternatives the movie presents: Would you rather blindly trust a smug demagogue of a blogger (Jude Law) who’s sometimes right but whose paranoiac dissemination of misinformation is depicted as its own kind of viral poison? Or business analysts and drug companies seeking to profit from horror? Or a hodgepodge of local officials and functionaries who don’t grasp the big picture? As one character explains early in the epidemic, 50 different states with 50 different health policies constitutes a recipe for disaster.
The fact that Contagion opened at No. 1 notwithstanding, the ideas in Scott Z. Burns’ intelligent and economical script are almost as out of favor with a large part of the nation as the movie’s belief in the value of scientific research (and in the importance of funding it). As the Tea Party debate continued on to that now-infamous moment in which some of the audience managed to shock its own candidates by crudely cheering the idea of letting an uninsured 30-year-old man die, it occurred to me that the film also has some sharp things to say about how quickly citizenry can descend into savagery. Burns, it turns out, was one of the producers of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and he seems to specialize in telling them. For a movie about a worst-case scenario, Contagion feels inspiringly clearheaded — and also depressingly of the moment.