“Pretty grim here,” a girl in Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, Contagion, texts to a friend from a funeral home, where the director is explaining to her father that he’s refusing to accept the infected corpses of her mother and brother. Lethal epidemics usually are grim. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be entertaining. In 1722, Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year, which fictionalizes a 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague in London. Defoe’s novel opens with mortality reports: two Frenchmen died of plague in Drury Lane in early December 1664, and over the next few months, the number of dead swelled from the usual 250 a week to a suspiciously high 474, though the municipal authorities were reluctant to name the plague as the cause of the rise. Statistics!, the habituated news reader thinks. What’s more, untrustworthy statistics! The reader is drawn into the game.
Soderbergh’s movie is scored to a similar drumbeat of numbers. Five dead in London. Three dead in Tokyo. Eighty-nine thousand cases worldwide. Eight million cases worldwide. The human mind can’t really make emotional sense of such numbers, of course, and for that Soderbergh turns to interwoven vignettes of the sort familiar from movies like Traffic and Crash. With such dismaying material, the artist’s challenge is how to make it real but not too real. If the deaths seem too real, sorrow will overwhelm viewers. (This is probably why John Lithgow’s performance of Alzheimer’s is so halfhearted in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If anyone in your family has ever had Alzheimer’s, the last thing you want to see in a sci-fi romp is realism.)
Contagion has been praised by science journalist Carl Zimmer for its realism—for showing such details as the sequencing of the fictional MEV-1 virus’s genetic material in order to trace its phylogeny. But how did Soderbergh keep his plague from becoming too real? I’d say it’s by limiting moral ugliness to the villains—to nameless looters in masks and to Jude Law, who plays a scurrilous blogger, branded with a crooked front tooth by the make-up department, for ease of identification as a pariah. When I was a teenager, I read La Peste, Albert Camus’s fictional account of an outbreak of bubonic plague in an Algerian town, because I was entranced by the moral certainty of the hero, a doctor who never seemed to factor the risk to himself into his decisions. How noble!, I thought. Years later, as a young adult, my sexual awakening took place in the shadow of a plague that, in those days before triple-combination drug treatments, killed within ten years almost everyone who contracted it. (Soderbergh’s MEV-1 only kills one out of four of its victims.) In the shadow of AIDS, Camus-like moral certainties turned out to be hard to find; all the gay men I knew worried about risks to themselves. Not worrying about such risks seemed to constitute a moral failing; on the other hand, surviving, too, seemed a somewhat guilty endeavor. In graduate school at the time, I found myself reading and rereading one of America’s first Gothic novels, Arthur Mervyn by Charles Brockden Brown, set during the yellow fever epidemic of 1797. The book’s paranoid mood and untrustworthy hero seemed timely. Moralizing was ubiquitous but unhelpful; virtue and villainy seemed mixed up in oneself.
Plagues heighten the ambivalence that people feel about one another even under the best circumstances, and because of that ambivalence, artists sometimes use them to suggest a critique of society. Camus’s plague has been interpreted as an allegory for fascism; Charles Brockden Brown seems to have had fears about democracy. A common theme in plague literature is a strong skepticism of quarantine—of the prudence, as well as the humanity, of official efforts to wall off of the sick from the well. Soderbergh shows one character frustrated by quarantine and another circumventing it, but he never gets as far as suggesting that quarantine itself might be counterproductive. The movie is unusually trusting of government institutions, in fact. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis even wrote that its message was tailor-made “for the antigovernment, Tea Party age” as if to suggest that the director meant to give the lie to those who doubt the good intentions or practical competence of the current administration. Indeed, the blogger played by Law is the film’s only antiestablishment voice, and he’s pushing a useless vegetable-extract remedy in which he has secretly invested. (Defoe knew the type: “Quacks and mountebanks” were around even in 1665, according to the fictional diarist who narrates Defoe’s novel. “A set of thieves and pickpockets not only robbed and cheated the poor people of their money, but poisoned their bodies with odious and fatal preparations.”)
Another topos of the genre missing from Soderbergh’s film is a scene where a Samaritan nurses a stranger. The only health-providing nonprofessional that I recall is a nun glimpsed in a sick ward, but surely if 2.5 million Americans were to die of an infectious illness, some nursing would fall into the hands of people who never signed up to risk their lives while changing other people’s bedpans? And there would doubtless be bad Samaritans, too. Surely someone less obviously malicious than Jude Law would turn away an innocent sufferer.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first published reports of AIDS. Is Hollywood trying to remember it? At the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, (spoiler!) humanity is wiped out by a virus. In an animation sequence over the closing credits, a patient zero spreads it from airport to airport. The man was unkind to apes in an earlier scene, so one doesn’t much mind his demonization, but back when gay magazines had a column about epidemiology and treatment in every issue, readers were taught to regret the mainstream media’s interest in the patient-zero story. It didn’t help fight the disease, the argument ran, and there was a danger that it could worsen stigmatization and scapegoating. There was even a 1993 movie musical, titled Zero Patience, that preached against the rhetorical convention. Now it’s cinematic shorthand.
Soderbergh’s film, too, has a patient zero. And there are other echoes of AIDS. When Kate Winslet, playing an epidemic-intelligence officer, discovers that an early victim cheated on her spouse, I wondered about the detail. When Winslet explains that for every virus there is a number that describes how fast it spreads, I found myself remembering that I had learned about the number long ago, in those epidemiology articles of yore. And then there’s Jude Law’s blogger. There was chuckling in the screening room when he screamed at a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that “print media is dying!” This being a plague movie, print media does indeed die not long after, quite literally, in a way that hardly endears Law’s character to the audience. In the early days of AIDS, though, scrappy distrust of mainstream institutions was often productive of good. Hecklers and doubters have lately disrupted politics, but it hasn’t always been wise to take the elite at their word.
Caleb Crain is a writer living in Brooklyn.