Contagion: A Warning About Lies in a Crisis

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion feels more timely than ever with its depiction of a viral pandemic... and the way opportunists can use it to spread disinformation.

Contagion Lies and Fake News
Photo: Warner Bros.

I refuse to eat peanuts at a bar. It’s nothing personal against them, as they can make for an excellent snack, but like cashews, pretzels, chips, or any other miscellaneous “open” food, it remains open to anyone. And I saw a scene begin like this in Contagion nine years ago.

Actually it’s the first scene of the movie when Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff sits at an airport bar, sweating profusely. As she absently speaks on the phone with an illicit lover, director Steven Soderbergh’s camera is far less interested in her conversation than where her hands are going: on the glass that someone else will clean, on the credit card she hands the bartender, and, yes, in that peanut bowl. As indicated by a title card ominously hovering over her head, it’s “Day 2” since the beginning of an outbreak of a novel strain of influenza. It’ll eventually be called MEV-1, and Beth is spreading it everywhere she goes.

This Contagion scene has always stuck with me, as did many others, like the sequence in which Beth hugs her four-year-old son after returning from her flight to China. An act of love becomes tragic in that framing, and later the same camera turns that kid into an afterthought when he leaves his preschool early. Rather than follow the lad, we stare at the door handle he just opened, lingering on the trap he unwittingly left for his classmates.

When Contagion came out in 2011, it was met with a positive if slightly muted reception. Some quarters even criticized it as being alarmist, or at the very least clinically cold in how it imagined a disaster movie like something that could really happen. Financially successful but largely ignored by awards circles in spite of Scott Z. Burns’ meticulously researched screenplay and an all-star cast giving unshowy turns, one might suspect the movie didn’t have its real moment until 2020. According to Warner Bros., Contagion jumped from their 270th most digitally rented movie in December 2019 to their second most rented one in February. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins even told The New York Times he just watched it with girlfriend Lulu Wang, director of The Farewell.

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“I was really curious to see how well it would line up to what is happening right now,” Jenkins said. “It was shocking. It felt like I was watching a documentary that has all these movie stars playing real people.”

And that’s the potent anxiety inherent in Contagion. Despite ostensibly following the formula of Irwin Allen disaster flicks, this all-star cast, including Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and more, give restrained and humanist takes on Centers for Disease Control scientists, World Health Organization detectives, and grievously widowered fathers who are thrown into a whirlwind of phrases like “social distancing,” “basic reproduction number,” and “don’t touch your face!

Yet one of the most chilling parallels between the potential coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic currently imperiling the globe in 2020 and the MEV-1 pandemic that occurs in Contagion is how the ensuing crisis is manipulated and exacerbated by opportunists and hucksters. For while almost every other big name actor is playing an every person or dedicated medical professional in Contagion (which in 2011 was refreshing after decades of scientists being treated as limp-wristed elites in anti-intellectual Hollywood fare), Jude Law plays the voice of his age. Introduced as a shady “blogger,” Law’s Alan Krumwiede is initially a pointed critique of unsourced online journalism at a flashpoint in 2011 when print media was beginning a decade of freefall.

“Blogging isn’t journalism, it’s graffiti with punctuation,” Elliot Gould’s Dr. Ian Sussman snarks when Krumwiede tries to badger him outside his office about news reports of a new viral outbreak in Hong Kong. Yet what makes Burns’ screenplay so prescient isn’t his wary critique of online journalism, but how he uses this character as a catch-all for the dangers of every type of opportunism we see during any crisis. Indeed, I suspect even with his English accent and mostly online media presence, Alan was most pointedly a critique of Glenn Beck and other far-right extremists who came to cultish prominence during President Barack Obama’s first term.

It is hard to recall that for a brief moment between 2009 and 2011, Glenn Beck was one of the most popular media figures in the United States, even infamously leading a conservative rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 2010. He also was a provocateur and arguable alarmist on his short-lived Fox News program where he pushed Goldline’s product on a nightly basis as the only solution for the inevitable economic collapse of the dollar wrought by the then-current recession and the Obama administration’s economic policies. Viewers needed to “think like a German Jew in 1934,” Beck screeched in 2009 while hawking for one of his sponsors (Goldline executives were charged with fraud two years later).

Beck’s moment of hysterical power came and went as he proved too conspiratorial for even Fox News. But he still was able to build a lucrative following for himself. He still profits off it to this day with The Blaze. And that was really what Contagion taps into, how hucksters and liars can use misinformation to worsen a situation for their own gain.

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In the movie, Law’s Alan Krumwiede doesn’t have a TV show but he acts like he should. In addition to his blog, he is a forerunner of modern YouTube celebrity by pretending he has the MEV-1 virus on the internet, and then suggesting he’s able to self-cure it by pouring forsythia into a glass of water. What he doesn’t tell his viewers is that he has apparently bought a lot of stock in the company that turns forsythia into a pharmaceutical product. He gets rich while lying to people around the globe about a false cure for a virus killing millions in the movie—which also means people who have the virus might think they can walk outside if they sip on forsythia. It also leads to riots at pharmacies around the U.S.

This is a textbook definition of “fake news,” whereby the reporter or news source knowingly disseminates disinformation (lies) to the public. That term itself has ironically been coopted as cover by public figures wanting to dismiss critics who document their lies, but it still is intended to refer to the knowing spreading of false stories. In Contagion, Alan embodies this as conspiracy theorist blogger, a snake oil peddler on YouTube, and finally as a minor media celebrity who even though he is obviously a disreputable source ends up getting air time for his popularity.

In one of the film’s centerpiece moments, CDC Head Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) appears on cable news in an attempt to calm the public after mass quarantines have gone into effect in multiple states. Yet Alan is brought in with his conspiracy theories as being on equal standing as the medical expert.

“We’re working very hard to figure out where this virus came from, to treat it and to vaccinate against it if we can,” Dr. Cheever explains. “We don’t know all of that yet, we just don’t know. What we do know is that in order to become sick, you first have to come into contact with a sick person or something that they touched. In order to get scared, all you have to do is come in contact with a rumor or the television and the internet. I think what Mr. Krumwiede is spreading is far more dangerous than disease.”

That moment is the thesis to this subplot of the movie, a warning about the dangers of conspiracy theories and, really, lies during a crisis. One that Krumwiede immediately undermines by trying to discredit Cheever personally—and thereby all experts. As the film goes on, the CDC even discovers a vaccination for MEV-1 and Krumwiede attempts to tell his fans not to take it, stick with him and his snake oil.

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One doesn’t need a doctorate in virology to see similarities between the spread of disinformation in the fictional Contagion and the very real spread of disinformation about the current coronavirus outbreak. Almost immediately after reports about a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China broke, internet conspiracy theorists like Krumwiede suggested the virus was cooked up in a lab, with some dumb-dumbs even believing that the Wuhan Biotech Lab’s logo was intentionally modeled after the nefarious Umbrella Corporation in the Resident Evil video games. Then W.H.O. had to release public information explaining that baths, ultraviolet lamps, nor stuffing your hands with snow can cure a COVID-19 infection. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are currently attempting to crack down on misinformation and fake news being spread about the virus across all platforms, often with xenophobic undertones toward the Chinese.

Through it all though, there is a wrinkle about the level of disinformation being spread that even Burns’ somewhat cynical depiction of the media in Contagion couldn’t imagine: The President of the United States is also a purveyor of misinformation about a deadly virus.

To be sure, any head of state should offer a calm and reassuring hand as leader during a potential crisis, yet repeatedly President Trump attempts to calm by saying or insinuating untrue things. During a Feb. 26 press conference, the president described coronavirus as “their new hoax,” referring to Democratic Party critics. This past weekend, he lamented on Twitter, “The Fake News Media is doing everything possible to make us look bad. Sad!” Yet this follows him speaking all on his own to Fox News’ Sean Hannity in the past week where he attempted to haggle down the mortality rate of those infected by COVID-19.

Asked about how the W.H.O. estimates the global death rate to be 3.4 percent, Trump said, “[That] is really a false number.” Based on his own “hunch,” he believes the mortality rate is probably a fraction of one percent with hundreds of thousands “sitting around and even going to work.” That last bit could be read as dangerously close to suggesting those who feel they might have the novel coronavirus to go to work, as it’ll probably all work out.

This is notably the opposite of Krumwiede, who stoked panic and anxiety for personal gain. Rather the president is arguably stoking a false sense of complacency. Yet both appear to be acting in their own self-interest, with Trump visibly concerned with the effect an increasing coronavirus crisis could have on the stock market and thereby his reelection prospects. Even so, both prove that during a contagious outbreak, sickness isn’t the only thing that can go viral.

This is not to say that the world is ending or we’re even in danger of reaching the levels of despair seen in Contagion. While that movie proves eerily prophetic in a number of ways—right down to suggesting the next global pandemic could be caused by a bat in China contaminating another animal sold for food (a pig in the movie, probably a snake in real-life)—its depiction of a deadly flu is actually far more apocalyptic than COVID-19. While the novel coronavirus mortality rate wavers between three and four percent (though far up from a “fraction of one percent”), it is also far less than the nearly 25 percent death rate in Contagion.

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Additionally, that movie itself isn’t apocalyptic. In fact, for a thriller sometimes criticized for its cold procedural storytelling, there is also a rational procedural light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually, health experts are able to discover a vaccination that can inoculate the public in the movie—and under a year no less, which seems downright rosy right about now. It even ends with Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever shaking hands for the first time in months with a child he just inoculated.

“You know where this comes from, shaking hands?” Cheever asks the kid. “It was a way of showing you weren’t carrying a weapon in the old days. You offered your empty right hand to show that you meant no harm.”

Hopefully, the ability for folks to do that without looking for a bottle of Purell will come again soon. And hopefully people with massive platforms can be just as forthright in the information they choose to spread.