Can you make an interesting film about the global governance of global pandemic disease? Apparently not, if Contagion is anything to go by. Steven Soderbergh gets an A+ for his research, but at best a B- for entertainment value.
Contagion doesn’t really work as cinema. Structurally, it is modelled on films like Magnolia and Crash, which follow a number of distinct but related story arcs surrounding a central event. In this case, it’s the outbreak of a highly contagious strain of influenza which infects a fifth of the world’s population, killing a large proportion of them. The main story arcs feature the efforts by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) to manage the epidemic and devise a cure, investigations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) into its origins, one family – headed by a character played by Matt Damon – infected by the virus, and a blogger – played by Jude Law – determined to expose government and corporate conspiracies surrounding the disease.
This sounds fine and potentially interesting in principle, but actually none of the storylines is particularly gripping or emotionally engaging. Matt Damon does his damnedest to make us care about him and his one surviving daughter, and just about succeeds by the end. The other narratives deliver precious little emotional payoff. Rather than building towards some great climax or cathartic moment, they each seem to ebb away, just like the disease itself. Some reviewers have called Contagion a cross between The Road and 28 Days Later. It is absolutely not. It contains nothing of the horror and tension of 28 Days, and aside from a couple of brief scenes, is oddly calm and plodding, conveying little sense of apocalypse or social collapse, unlike The Road.
Why doesn’t Contagion work? Perhaps because it is simply too realistic. For Soderbergh has certainly done his homework (or someone has done it for him). The film has a remarkably finely tuned awareness of how global health governance actually works in practice and it relays this extremely realistically to the audience. The CDC really would start looking for a cure in the careful, methodical way described, and it really would take many months to develop and manufacture enough, by which time the disease would already have wreaked havoc. The R0 – the number of people each sufferer would communicate the disease to – really would determine the urgency, scope and type of methods used to contain and manage the epidemic. The WHO would seek to find the ‘index’ victim – the one closest to its origin – in order to track down the source, identify the contagious and contain its spread. The origin of any deadly worldwide pandemic is indeed likely to be East Asia and involve animal-to-human transmission, à la SARS and bird flu. And so on.
The trouble is, a lot of global health governance is highly technical and rather bureaucratic stuff. You need to work pretty hard to bring it alive in a way that will engage a cinema audience. Contagion doesn’t work hard enough. It is often painfully didactic: the characters actually explain – to other characters, but obviously for the audience’s benefit – what R0 is, what the ‘index’ is, and so on. At times, it is like watching an extended episode of CSI, with all the engaging and exciting parts stripped out.
This is a huge pity, really, because global health governance raises very important political questions, and the film deals with them quite ham-fistedly. A WHO investigator is taken hostage in China and only released in exchange for one of the first batches of the vaccine. This is a reference to two recent controversies: first, China’s reluctance to cooperate with WHO investigations into SARS in 2004; second, Indonesia’s decision to stop sharing bird flu virus samples with the WHO in 2008. Both related to questions of sovereignty, but the second controversy was also about who benefits from the global systems set up to manage transboundary disease. Indonesia stopped sharing the virus when it realised that the WHO was passing them on to big pharmaceutical companies to manufacture vaccines, none of which would be available for Indonesia to buy for its own people. Although Jakarta had scraped together enough money to buy some, rich developed countries had already secured first dibs on tens of millions of batches, leaving Indonesia facing a huge waiting list. The country worst-affected by bird flu would therefore be least able to access the vaccine. Indonesia’s decision to suspend cooperation with the WHO in protest was widely condemned as irresponsible by the global health community, but it raised important issues about the power relations involved in the technocratic systems featured in Contagion.
The film tries to explore these issues through the hostage storyline, but its treatment is rather undermined by the other story arcs, particularly the blogger’s. Law’s character, Alan Krumwiede, is a geeky conspiracy theorist convinced that the US government, the WHO and big pharmaceuticals are all in cahoots to conceal the truth from the public and make big profits from manufacturing a vaccine when a cheap, complementary medicine can cure it. Some of the issues Krumwiede raises have real validity. As the Indonesian controversy suggests, the WHO and big pharma really are – as he puts it – like ‘a hand in a glove’; global health governance is big business and that profoundly shapes how it works and how the benefits are distributed. Yet the relevance and import of this point is profoundly discredited, both by their insertion into wild conspiracy-theorising (the character is made to be Australian, despite Law’s extraordinarily bad Australian accent, presumably to evoke the equally ‘weird’ anti-corporate activist Julian Assange) and by Krumwiede’s attempts to profit from the pandemic himself by investing in the complementary medicine. He is ultimately arrested by the US government on anti-trust charges. Consequently, it is big pharma and the American state which are painted as the responsible – if rather dull – heroes of the piece. Everyone in the US eventually gets their vaccine in a calm, orderly and fair fashion, in an order determined by a lottery. The fact that the vast majority of the world’s population would probably never receive a vaccine is only hinted at when the WHO delivers a fake shipment to the Chinese village in exchange for the release of their investigator.
Soderbergh tried to do a lot with Contagion – perhaps too much: explain basics of epidemiology, convey a sense of how pandemic viruses are governed, explore the ethical issues it raises and the political controversies surrounding it, and show how individuals might deal with the disease on the ground. It is a tall order, and not without some success. Certainly it is a thought-provoking film that has great fealty to its subject. But ultimately, Contagion is surprisingly dull for a movie about a disease that kills up to a fifth of the global population.