Monday, October 3, 2011

Is "Contagion" A Love Letter to “Big Government”?

This piece originally appeared, in abbreviated form, on the Maddow Blog.

In Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller Contagion, the federal government saves the day. Faced with “MEV-1,” a hyper-contagious virus that becomes a global pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control isolate the virus, study it, and develop a vaccine. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security distribute it. In a film commendable for its nuanced refusal to cast its characters in black or white, the primary heroes are the CDC’s “Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer” and its Level-4 Biosafety Lab tech; one gives her life in battling the virus, the other risks hers, selflessly and modestly, to test the vaccine.

That Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay creates a giant problem that is solved by a giant government is, on the face, nothing revolutionary; within the context of the film, it’s the narrative arc that makes the most sense. But Contagion’s decidedly positive portrait of government is a bit of an anomaly—both within the confines of modern cinema, and in the current political climate.

Not since Ronald Reagan’s proclamation that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’” has the phrase “big government” been so politically poisonous. The rise of the Tea Party has caused the majority of Republicans (and plenty of Democrats as well) to insist, with increasing force and volume, that government is the problem and the private sector, the free market, and “individual liberties” are the solution—even to natural disasters, which Tea Party favorites like Ron Paul insist warrant no response whatsoever at the federal level. “There's no magic about FEMA,” Paul told NBC News in the days before Irene made landfall. “We should be coordinated but coordinated voluntarily with the states. A state can decide. We don't need somebody in Washington."

Significantly, considering the tremendous lip service given by anti-fed advocates like Paul to “state’s rights,” Contagion’s only portrayal of state government (the Minnesota Department of Health) is that of an organization that serves entirely as an obstruction to the CDC—fretting over economic damage from a possible panic, pinching pennies over an emergency triage center (“Is this coming out of your budget or ours?”). The state can’t decide; in Soderbergh’s film, the state does, in fact, need “somebody in Washington.”

More than one review has pinpointed Contagion’s echoes of ‘70s cinema—not just of the all-star Irwin Allen disaster epics, but fast-paced, intelligent films that told big stories on personal level, like All The President’s Men, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor. The significant difference, however, is that those were stories inspired, either directly or indirectly, by Watergate; the government was the enemy, orchestrating vast conspiracies of malfeasance that only the exceptional individual could spot, and take on. That suspicious view of the federal government held through much of the cinema that followed; sure, there were rah-rah go-America Simpson/Bruckheimer epics like Top Gun, but even a right-leaning flag-waver like Rambo found room to accuse the federal government of neglecting vets and POWs.

In spring of 2010, Breck Eisner’s remake of George A. Romero’s The Crazies hit theaters, and there was something strangely timely about its unsettling paranoiac vision, which seemed to refract the charged, fringe-right rhetoric in the air. Particularly noteworthy, among all the black helicopters and executions of citizenry, were sequences of military personnel tossing civilians into quarantine camps; the previous spring, while the film was in production, fringe conspiracy websites and figures like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck were whispering about “FEMA concentration camps”—an idea first posited, it seems, in the 1998 film version of the TV series The X-Files. (Beck later “debunked” the theory, all the while insisting he had never put it forward himself.)

The spirit of Beck is conjured up in Contagion by Alan Krumweide (Jude Law), a snaggle-toothed conspiracy theorist blogger whose endorsement of a homeopathic remedy called Forsythia sets off a worldwide scramble for the product—to stockholder Krumweide’s immense personal profit. Meanwhile, Beck’s perpetual warnings of impending economic collapse on his radio and Internet shows are buffered by his personal endorsements of advertiser Goldline International’s gold coins. Beck may have a better dentist that Krumweide; one is less certain of the comparative health of his moral compass.

In an earlier time, a crusading muckraker like Krumweide would have been the hero a film like Contagion. Hollywood is, as right-wing pundits never cease reminding us, a town that leans to the left; its storytellers have viewed the federal government primarily with suspicion and contempt over three Republican administrations (and that of Clinton who, let’s face it, no one trusted). Now, progressive filmmakers find themselves in the same conundrum as liberals across the country—defending the competence and honesty of a government that, just a couple of years ago, was suspect at best. And conservatives, just as uneasily, find themselves doing the exact opposite.

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