By Marie-Renee Goulet
Rarely can we study a global disaster movie for its accuracy by having the “opportunity” to live through the said global disaster. Contagion (2011) is a movie about the spread of a deadly virus that rapidly becomes a worldwide pandemic. I revisited the film back in March during the first shut down due to COVID-19, and again this month. I use it as a gauge to understand where we are in the cycle as the movie was thoroughly researched. In the film, scientists determine the virus is a combination of genetic material from pig and bat-borne viruses, a novel virus identified as MEV-1.
Most of the all-star cast did the movie for little to no money. If they had to cover their usual fees, this movie would have had an astronomical budget.
- Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff and patient zero.
- Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff, the “everyman” who doesn’t have medical knowledge, naturally immune to the virus who goes to great lengths to protect his daughter from a previous relationship.
- Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes, an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization
- Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever, the voice of reason.
- Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede, anaggressive conspiracy theorist and blogger who pushes a fake drug on TV.
- Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer
- Bryan Cranston as Rear Admiral Lyle Haggerty, United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps
- Jennifer Ehle as Dr. Ally Hextall, a research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Elliott Gould as Dr. Ian Sussman, A research scientist at the University of California San Francisco, a medical campus, Sussman identifies a cell culture capable of growing the virus, leading to a vaccine and
- John Hawkes as Roger, CDC custodian and acquaintance of Dr. Cheever.
The movie opens on day two of the Contagion. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the Chicago airport on a layover from a Hong Kong business trip, looking pale, feverish, and coughing. She receives a phone call from a man with whom she has just had sex in a nearby hotel, and her wedding ring is prominently visible. I took offense to that part of the narrative the first time I saw the movie, not understanding why we had to introduce a fact that would make us despise Patient Zero. I still believe there were other ways to establish the timeline of transmission without introducing morality issues for the woman who begins the spread of a virus that will kill millions. When her lover asks how she is, she attributes the symptoms she feels to jet lag. However, her health declines rapidly over the next two days, and she dies horribly. Doctors tell her shocked husband (Matt Damon) that they have no idea what killed her, and the disease would soon kill her son from a previous marriage. Soon many others start to exhibit the same symptoms, and a global pandemic explodes. Doctors try to contain the lethal disease, but society begins to collapse, while a blogger (Jude Law) fans the flames of conspiracy theories. He even pretends to have caught the virus and cured himself with a drug, which he then goes on TV to promote for a profit, causing much chaos. Sound familiar? The writer would have never attributed this behaviour to any elected official because it would have been too egregious.
Scott Z. Burns wrote Contagion in 2011, heavily researched the film with the Center for Disease Control and is not surprised at similarities of his screenplay to COVID-19. “I don’t find it to be that surprising because the scientists I spoke to, and there were a lot of them, all said that this was a matter of when, not if.” Burns consulted Lawrence Brilliant, renowned for his work in eradicating smallpox, to develop a screenplay that would accurately depict a pandemic event. I had a strange déjà vu when I, a news junky, saw Dr. Sanjay Gupta appear on screen, double checking that I hadn’t switched back to CNN by mistake. The screenplay addresses issues in the first five minutes that we are still grappling with more than nine months in: how do you close the schools and if you close the schools, then who stays home with the kids? And will everyone keep their kids at home? Dr. Mears (Winslet) does an excellent job conveying what science will need to find out rapidly to begin working on a solution i.e.: establish the reproductive rate of the virus and the population susceptible to it. Her assistant complains. “My wife makes me take off my clothes in the garage,” he says, “and then she leaves out a bucket of warm water and soap. And then she douses everything in hand sanitizer after I leave. I mean, she’s overreacting, right?” Her answer: “Not really. And stop touching your face.”
Many scenes feel real and familiar. Although the population in this movie are sometimes smarter than us, as they stock up on everything including batteries and not one excess roll of toilet paper. Civil unrest does ensue as people fight for access to an ineffective drug and people loot stores. Nurses go on strike and the fire department is nowhere to be found. This is what gives me hope – the movie depicts a far more rapid and tragic decent into chaos. The world’s frontline and essential workers have shown more courage than imagined in the movie. The biggest surprise in reality was the reaction, or lack thereof of the United States of America, you could never have written a president like Trump, he is too unbelievable a character.
Burns said on CNN in 2020: “You know, I went to the CDC, as their guest, and it seemed to me at the time there that the people were very aware of this and that, you know, there was solid preparation going on I think when I was contemplating the movie and speaking to experts the notion that, you know, the richest country in the world where we live would have a three month head start on this and now finds itself as the sickest country in the world is something I would have never thought to put in a screen.” He accurately depicted the issues with funeral homes not wanting to take the bodies, not being able to have funerals, contact tracings, masks, everything. So why were we taken so off guard? Let me remind you that Canada never had a national mandate. There is no strategy, and we are very much exactly where we were in March.
Contagion is clinical and fact based. Mitch Emhoff’s (Damon) reactions to the events and his drive to protect his tween daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) is our emotional centre. Damon gives one of his best performances. Jory is us, trying to live, follow the rules but also wanting to live her life and maybe try to steel a first kiss.
This is where we currently are. In Contagion the vaccine is a nasal drip administered in seconds and is distributed by lottery; everyone born on a specific date gets in line. All are given a bracelet to prove they are now vaccinated and, presumably, free to roam. There is no need for extreme refrigeration. Vaccinating millions of people with two doses will take months and we all better prepare for a few more difficult months.
On a personal note, the very definition of civil liberties is: the state of being subject only to laws established for the good of the community. How some ill-intentioned agitators were able to manipulate the message and equate being asked to wear a mask during a pandemic as tyranny is mind boggling. We all have a civic duty to care for others, and I can’t think of anything simpler than wearing a mask and washing my hands more often. It reminds me a quote from G. Michael Hopf: “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And weak men create hard times.”
Have we all gone so soft as humans that being inconvenienced by wearing a mask is just too much to ask? I also wish we lived in a Walter Cronkite world where all of us got the actual news. People should not be able to choose the set of facts they want to hear but be given the simple unvarnished truth.
Watch the trailer.
The cast was also contacted for PSA at the beginning of COVID-19.
Marie’s appreciation for movies & TV began early in life as it offered escapes, laughter, and often an education. It sparked a love of photography, travel, and a general curiosity for the world and everything in it. Originally from Quebec City, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Trebas Institute in 1998 where John H. Foote was her Film History professor. The winds pushed her into a different professional field and on a few adventures around the world. The passion for film and storytelling in all forms continues. Marie lives in the Canadian Rockies.