Monday, December 10, 2012

Contagion

SPOILERS!!

Whatever other qualities it has, I think director Steven Soderbergh's 2011 thriller CONTAGION works best as a scary Public Service Announcement arguing the importance of washing your hands. And wiping down your workspace. And for heaven's sake, don't touch your face so much! During one of my internships, a preceptor (who was a true blue germaphobe) ended one day with, "If there's any wisdom I can impart to you, make sure you scrub furiously after every patient."

That advice has proven invaluable. I encounter a lot of bloody external auditory meatii. Other orifices, too. But of course potential contagions need not be so obvious. Objects ("fomites") like otoscopes and neckties can carry millions of germs and parasites. Another good reason not to wear those damned things. And if I touch an infectious patient, all the surfaces I touch afterward are breeding grounds for infection. People go about their day, grabbing doorknobs and handrails on the bus. The contagion could quickly and easily go exponential.

A woman named Beth (Gwenyth Paltrow) is coughing at the airport during Thanksgiving weekend. She just spent her afternoon layover in Chicago having an extramarital tryst. She thinks she's just suffering a nasty cold. After all, she spent an eternity on a plane returning from the Orient. Her condition degrades rapidly once home with her husband (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis. She and her son will be dead within 24 hours. The news reports several deaths in Hong Kong, Chicago, and several other cities.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control join forces and race against the clock to identify the origin of the outbreak and whether it is part of a bio-terrorism plot. The pathogen is traced back to Beth by an Epidemic Intelligence officer named Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) whose efforts to secure funding for medical stations around Minneapolis are met with the usual red tape. By the time a large facility is approved and operational, Mears will find herself on one of the gurneys.

CONTAGION's impressive ensemble cast also features Elliott Gould as Ian Sussman, a university professor who breaks protocol and discovers within the virus a grouping of bat cells. Dr. Ally Hextal (Jennifer Ehle, who just about steals the movie from her more famous cast-mates), continues Sussman's research and learns of the additional presence of pig and human content within the viruses that mutates at a rate of 2, meaning that for every case of the infection, two more will be generated over its infectious period. My favorite moments in CONTAGION featured Hextal as her mind began to spin furiously into action. After she discovers a vaccine, she inoculates herself and tests this by exposing herself to her infected father (in a concise and very effective scene).

The film has been constructed to resemble a docudrama, with several scenes of medical explanations and concerned faces. There are also the expected moments of chaos - of desperate citizens looting and degenerating to violence when vaccines and food run out. Yet, the director is guiltless of overly stylizing his movie, and Soderbergh crafts CONTAGION with an austerity that is close to perfect, spurring interest from the viewer on several levels: intellectually, emotionally, viscerally. The film was shot with the RED MX digital camera and looks astonishing. The clarity of the visual is icily perfect for Soderbergh's purposes here, as coldly precise as science itself.

I found the statements the screenplay makes regarding the character of Alan (Jude Law), a conspiracy theorist whose blog becomes insanely popular during the outbreak, quite fitting as well. Millions read his rants against pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment. When he corners Dr. Sussman for information, the professor retorts, "You know what a blog is, don't you? Graffiti with punctuation." Alan champions a holistic preparation derived from the forsythia plant, then pretends to be infected and cured by the substance. Once the vaccine is perfected and proven successful, CONTAGION makes clear that evidence-based, pure medicine will save the day.

If anyone reading this works in a medical office, by the way, remember: Cavicide is your friend.

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