Contagion Podcast Transcript
Hi, my name’s Melvin, and thanks for listening!
Welcome to Cinematic Doctrine, a Christian podcast service that seeks to encourage and equip Christians to engage and reform the culture of cinema. In this episode, we’ll be looking at Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.
This movie was chosen by the lovely patrons who support Cinematic Doctrine with a small monthly donation. For as little as $3, you too can have the opportunity to vote for a movie I review at the end of each month by heading over to Cinematic Doctrine’s Patreon. A link will be available in the shownotes.
During the early 2010’s like most other teenagers, I had a fascination with zombies and the zombie sub-culture. If I wasn’t watching The Walking Dead, I was playing Left 4 Dead 2 nonstop with my friends on Xbox 360. I would watch zombie short films on YouTube and play tons of flash games on Kongregate.com in the zombie sub-category.
All of this to say, when I went to see Contagion in theaters, I didn’t get it. I mean, I got it, it was a plague movie, but I didn’t get it. I thought it was slow. I thought it had too much talking. I thought there wasn’t enough action. And I also thought to myself, “Why bother making a plague movie without zombies?”
And I know I’m far removed from who I was nearly 10 years ago, but my goodness, was I off my rocker. I need to personally thank you, my patron supporters, for getting me to rewatch this movie, because my goodness was I an idiot!
Anyways, enough of me sharing about my teenage years. Let me tell you what Contagion is about:
Beth Emhoff is returning from a business trip to China. Crossing the Pacific ocean, she bears with her plenty of luggage and an unwanted cough. A cold seems to have sprouted during her outing, and she can’t stop coughing. Unfortunately for her, soon after she returns home, seizures overtake her body, and she’s rushed to the hospital with an unknown virus no doctor has seen before. Her husband Mitch is blindsided and left to wonder what this surprise sickness means for his family and navigating daily life.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ellis Cheever and the CDC are already reporting on several cases of this unknown virus around the United States, while trying to understand where this virus has come from and what kind of damage it poses. Dr. Cheever employs the help of Dr. Erin Mears to work on ground level to prepare for a worst case scenario.
Alongside the CDC, the World Health Organization has sent Dr. Leonora Orantes to China, suspecting that the virus originated on the island country. Her investigation starts with Beth Emhoff’s business trip and tracking down who she’s interacted with, where she went during her trip, and who all has contracted the disease.
And while all of this goes on, independent journalist and prolific blogger Alan Krumwiede, who suspected the threat of the disease and the importance of its story early on, keeps the public primed and ready with news updates on his personal website, tackling the nuance and complexity of bureaucracy and red-tape while searching far-and-wide for a wonder-drug that he believes big pharma is hiding behind it’s capitalistic greed and over-restrictive legislation.
Contagion is Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.
The disturbing content is a bit of a no brainer. The film follows multiple characters experiencing multiple levels of fear and anxiety due to the graphic experience of witnessing loved ones suffer the fatal results of disease. Not only that, you’re front and center to the horrifyingly bureaucratic nature of otherwise humane organizations and figureheads. So yeah, it’s got disturbing content, and that’s going to happen from start to finish. There’s no getting around that.
And the language never goes beyond what you’d hear in a PG-13 film. In other words, there’s one F word and a somewhat comfortable amount of lesser words through-out the runtime of this film.
Now, before we take a look at Contagion, I wanted to share real quick that if you’ve come to enjoy Cinematic Doctrine, consider leaving a review for the podcast on your respective podcast app at the end of this episode. Unlike YouTube or Reddit, there isn’t really a way to let us know how we’re doing with a thumbs up or thumbs down, so the best way to leave your thoughts on the podcast is to write a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you listen.
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I’m going to start this review in a bit of a weird way. I just want to come out and be honest about something: I have somewhat dreaded this review. It’s not for anything Contagion related, although I suppose it is. Basically, I felt like January was a great month of excellent in-depth reviews, perhaps some of my best non-fiction work ever, and I have dreaded the idea that I can’t hit self-proclaimed homeruns one after another. Something about my reviews on A Hidden Life, First Reformed, and The Mandalorian, an episode I admit is far too messy but still somewhat decent, felt like the pinnacle of what I’m trying to do with Cinematic Doctrine. And while the last two episodes, Birds of Prey and Sonic the Hedgehog were discussion based, I don’t particularly have any intention of outright discarding the format of audio-essays or long-form cultural film reviews.
But, my point being, Contagion is a really great movie with great things to talk about with regards to the whether or not life can be sustained, the over-powering bureaucracy that gets in the way of altruism, and the capitalistic exploitation and seizing of opportunity that takes place amidst disaster. You know, how quite literally everyone in the film community is watching or rewatching this movie because of the Coronavirus and whether or not my contribution in reviewing Contagion is, in itself, an exploitation of said disaster.
And for some reason, I feel like I can’t do that with this episode. Not that I can’t swing some sort of over-arching cultural / biblical discussion, but that I’m simply too tired to do it.
And that sort of hurt to write in my script, and it hurts again to read it out loud, and I’m sure when I’m editing this episode it will hurt again to hear, but I think it’s so important for me to make that clear from the get-go, that I’m feeling a bit tired about this, and all around inadequate when looking to the work I put forth in January of 2020.
And yet, God is good, and I should not look to my past achievements as a measurement for my talent, success, or achievements. It’s not as though God’s ability to find favor in me, nor his pension for gift-giving is indicative of my ability to put words into a sentence and sound convincing about whatever it is I write. Not only would that be works-righteousness, that’d be utterly and completely debilitating.
But again, it needs saying because it’s important for me to say it out loud and, I feel, important for you as my listeners (or patron supporters who so kindly chose this film for me to review) to know where I’m coming from, and that I’m also not shirking off the responsibility I have to work on this this episode.
I think this is the part where I’m suppose to say “But I digress”, so I’ll go ahead and say it.
But I digress. Let’s actually talk about Contagion.
It’s a fantastic film. But it’s kind of geeky and more science-fiction that I suspect most think it would be. Or, I should say, thought it would be. As a naive, young, somewhat zombie-crazed kid, I either expected Contagion to be more of a thriller or a drama than it was back in the day, and I think most everyone else felt the same as well. So, when they sat down in their theater seat and realized they were in for a 90 minute plague-simulation that would make them want to wash their hands in 10 minute intervals throughout the day, there was likely a semi-dismissive nature to it. The film was affective, as I said people couldn’t wait to wash their hands after sitting in a public theater where strangers touched anything and everything just to sit in a constantly used public chair (that people ate popcorn in that, most likely, dropped to the floor, mind you), but that doesn’t necessarily mean people expected it.
But now Contagion is not only experiencing a bit of a renaissance as everyone and their mother is rewatching it, it’s also recognized as what I stated above: a plague-simulation. And it’s interesting to see how Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns tackle this project by grounding it as far into reality as they can.
An interesting thing I noticed while I watched with my wife was how the camera always feels less like a camera, and more like an omniscient gaze into a person’s life. There aren’t many moments where the camera is doing anything other than giving us a stationary, almost non-poetic image of what’s taking place. Framing is less concerned with making a character look wonderful with swooping angles, depth of field, or lighting. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like actors are being directed in ways that are either flattering or practical. Everyone’s being directed in ways that make sense to the situation.
And even Steven Soderberg himself has shared he wanted the film shot eye-level, saying that there was no plan to ever throw the camera around. He wanted it simple, that what audiences were to pay attention to was the performance. And when you watch Contagion, you can’t help but see it as a resounding success in that regard. Because, in many ways, Contagion may be a plague-simulation showing multiple levels amidst a global crisis, but as an art-piece, it’s an exhibition of talented actors. Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishbourne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Chin Han, John Hawkes, there are so many actors in this movie and they all have moments to really show off their talent either through micro-expressions or intense emotions. It’s so good.
And another great thing is that despite Contagions massive ensemble cast, each character feels lively and fresh. No two characters are alike, and the way these characters play off one-another creates well-constructed drama, much-needed dry humor, and continues in grounding the realistic pursuit of the film. This also helps in delivering different experiences and tiers to the struggle of facing a worldwide plague. As mentioned already in the description, we’re given a glimpse of different levels to the fight against viral global disaster, and we’re shown the every-man struggle from Mitch Emhoff and his family, the US bureaucracy from the CDC, the cross-cultural confusion of working in the World Health Organization, and the over-zealous and opportunistic truth-seeking of a growing internet community.
And while every plotline within Contagion is interesting and has its own facets to take apart, I think that last one, the one about the internet community, that I find the most interesting.
I have a fascination for predictive literature, or, what I would consider literary works that, at the time of writing, may or may not be speaking into the future, but ultimately end up having an uncanny vision of how the future actually turns out. George Orwell’s 1984 is an easy piece of work to go to for this. Orwell’s uncanny ability to tap into overt surveillance and the all-around assault on privacy for the sake of power is fascinatingly accurate for a book written in 1949. The extremely niche horror mockumentary The Last Broadcast feels like a love-letter to early 2010’s internet-based no-budget found-footage stories told through YouTube or blogs, even though The Last Broadcast was released in 1998.
And Contagion feels very much like predictive literature. Sure, one could easily say that it’s predictive literature in its depiction of how a massive, global-wide health crisis would unfold, but humanity has experienced that already. SARS was a real thing. My sister and I both had swine flu. And even Soderberg and Scott Z. Burns drew from those global crises to help influence their writing and directing.
But it’s the character of Alan Krumwiede that, I feel, really shows its predictive nature. Krumwiede’s whole character is built around a growing community of internet fielded criticism of the CDC, World Health Organization, and to some degree, other people in general. Krumwiede presents himself as not only non-partisan but entirely representative of his own. And yet, he builds his status entirely through his blog and other multimedia offerings such as video and audio recordings, adapting and interpreting other publications and release statements, and espousing his own rhetoric entirely through the blogosphere.
Which, of course, means he’s anything but non-partisan. In fact, out of everyone in the film, he amasses the largest bias from start to finish. And including that angle in the film is so modern and so clever and ultimately so predictive. In an age where the term influencer can be a legitimate job-title you attach to your LinkedIn profile, or the number of Instagram followers you have can help in scoring sponsorships and business deals, it isn’t alien in the least to think a character like Alan Krumwiede can become so influential, so powerful, so, dare I say it, invulnerable amidst global disaster.
And that invulnerability, that lack of accountability to a higher power such as a well-trusted publication, monetary limitations (as his work can largely be completed at home), or even health risks (again, the work can be done at home), culminates into the perfect storm of power-tripping talking head. Alan’s ability to speak nonstop about an endless amount of issues such as the obscenely long process of creating a vaccination, the CDC’s insistence on creating the vaccination in house for clout, or at its worst, the allegations against certain governments for hiding a cure for national capitalistic advancements or the worst of all, that the plague was started as an attack, can all be done with a username, password, and clever Twitter handle.
And I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like the power structures we interact with daily. That, ironically, the power struggle isn’t among corporations, but laymen who simply have the know-how to build a digital empire of other netizens who either feel left out, owed something, or are simply enraged by something going on either locally, nationally, or in the comment section of that antifa or alt-right publication that they don’t agree with anyway.
And while it’s not entirely the same, you have companies embracing the “woke-brand” style of marketing online, that fast-food chains are imitating Gen Z slang and self-deprecating humor to get the attention of potential customers. They’re seeing how you don’t have to spend absurd levels of money to get the attention of basically anyone, you just haveta say things that are either highly relatable or cause outrage.
Remember the Kaepernick Nike commercial? Sure, there was a strange level of outrage over the whole thing, and you had an outcrop of YouTube videos of old white men and friendless teenagers burning Nike’s, but the biggest irony of all was that people were still buying Nike’s just to burn them. Nike sales were predicted to have gone up 31% because of the commercial and its subsequent aftermath. You think Nike cared that anyone was burning them? Of course not. They don’t care that their labor laws in Vietnam and Indonesia were horrendously inhumane in the 90’s and early 2000’s. And even now they’re still quite horrible, with workers making sixty cents an hour while working upwards of 60 hours a week. If they don’t care how their shoes are made in factories overseas, they sure as heaven don’t care what some enraged culture of self-righteous men are going to do with their shoes.
Point being, a massive plague that threatens to disrupt modern civil life, it’s the perfect place for someone so devilish and so clever to take advantage of two things.
- The fact that the government and big pharma are large institutions that can’t fix the problem as fast as anyone thinks they should
- That outrage culture is the perfect soil for heavy profit
And if you’re not thinking of one, two, three, or five different online influencers right now who not only act as though they are unbiased and against the system, while also feeding a constant and never-ceasing outrage culture, then honestly good on you because that means you neither watch the news or browse the internet and that means you’re probably protected from a lot of garbage that fills my newsfeed and push notifications from online publications.
But really, it’s not that Alan Krumwiede is simply monopolizing the level of outrage he can to his own advantage, it’s that he’s doing it on the internet that, to me, feels highly predictive, especially to the degree he’s able to create such a following, and over such a short period of time. At some point, his work becomes a singularity. It feeds into itself, creating more and more content and more and more followers as things move further and further into the future.
And while the prospects of the plague present in Contagion are rightfully frightening, it’s that reality, that all it can take is one guy who wants to exploit disaster for social, cultural, or political means that really frightens me. I mean, obviously worldwide disease is far scarier. But, the sort of evil present in exploitation has a unique bitterness that leaves a very different taste in my mouth than a fatal sickness. Sickness, pain, suffering, when rightfully understood, should cause us to recognize the sanctity of life, not become a means to exploit the less fortunate for everything they have, either their hope, time, or financial security.
And I want to be clear, Alan Krumwiede isn’t the only character in Contagion who does certain things that otherwise might seem immoral or questionable as an authority figure. We’re witness to a few choices from characters like Dr. Cheever who might notify a coworker or his wife about something they’ve discovered ahead of public release because he wants them to be safe as soon as possible, or Mitch Emhoff acting drastically and manically to keep his family from sickness.
And it’s this balance of good choices and bad choices that’s present in every character that makes for an intriguing image of the human condition in response to massive disasters and tragedies. I’m not one to necessarily hold onto the so-called resilience of the human spirit but there is something magical to the hopeful complexities engrained in the human condition that, quite honestly, can only be God-given.
But again, it’s that predictive nature, that some pervasive rando with a blog and twitter account can have a large impact on world-wide issues that feels undeniably natural at this point. As I mentioned, there are influencers who make plenty of money simply by having an obscene level of Instagram followers, which by the can sometimes straight up include CATS but we all knew cats were going to take over the world somehow, we just didn’t know it was through a photo-based social media.
Oh wow, now I want to see if there’s some sort of predictive literature about cats taking over the world through Instagram. Maybe there’s something in the pyramids about that…
I digress… again…
Contagion is a great movie. And while it may be due to a morbid curiosity present amidst the COVID-19 fear going around, I still think it’s worth your time to check it out.
Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of Cinematic Doctrine, if you’ve seen Contagion,, what did you think of it? Were you blown away by its borderline documentary style of filmmaking, or would you have preferred it to be more of a thriller? If you’re listening on Cinematic Doctrine’s website, let me know in the comments below, or shoot me an email to email@example.com.
If you enjoyed this episode, consider leaving a review for the podcast on your respective podcast app at the end of this episode. Unlike YouTube or Reddit, there isn’t really a way to let us know how we’re doing with a thumbs up or thumbs down, so the best way to leave your thoughts on the podcast is to write a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you listen.
And, as mentioned before, Cinematic Doctrine has a Patreon! For as little as $3 a month, you’re opted into a once-a-month movie poll where you decide a movie we review on the podcast! There are other unique benefits that come with supporting the podcast, so be sure check that out at Patreon.com/CinematicDoctrine.
A special shout-out to those who support at the Art House Theater tier! Thank you so much Mom and Dad! You’re the best!
All of this will be available in the shownotes.
Until next time, stay cool!
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Melvin Benson is the Founder, Editor-In-Chief, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!