Watching Contagion in the Age of the Coronavirus

Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic movie is simultaneously terrifying and comforting.

A white-coated female scientist is seen a laboratory. A computer behind her reads "CDC."
Jennifer Ehle as Dr. Ally Hextall in Contagion. Warner Bros. Studios

On this week’s Spoiler Special podcast, Slate senior editor Sam Adams and staff writer Rebecca Onion discussed the peculiar experience of rewatching Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic movie, Contagion, in the age of the coronavirus. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sam Adams: Watching Contagion now was uncanny. Of course, it’s a little bit frightening but also weirdly comforting. One of the odd things about fiction is that even if it’s realizing our worst fears, you’re still sitting there not at a movie theater at the moment but at home watching it. You have that literal distance between you and the thing, and that is helpful somehow.

Rebecca Onion: Yes. This movie did scare people when it came out, I remember. People who were germophobes didn’t want to go. People who weren’t went and then were super conscious for a little while. If the movie was intended to be socially triggering in some way, it worked. But it makes me wonder whether any movie can really teach a lesson of the magnitude that this movie was trying to get across. No amount of fear that you can get from a movie can move people in the way that they wanted to.

Adams: That is something I think about a lot as a critic and someone who is invested in the deeper messages in these movies. Does this stuff actually work? I think you can give people a little push in the right direction, but they have to be close to hearing the message. I’m not even entirely sure many of the people in the U.S. are there now. They definitely weren’t in 2011.

The very first thing we hear in this movie is the sound of Gwyneth Paltrow coughing over a black screen. We see her face is kind of shiny. She’s flushed. The movie is called Contagion. You saw the poster on the way into the theater. We know she’s sick right away. One of the things that the movie does so effectively right from the beginning is stigmatize the idea of touch. She’s sitting in an airport bar, and the camera is following and pulling focus on her hands as they touch a little dish of peanuts on the bar. She hands a credit card to another person. The card goes through the slot, where of course the germs will linger and then be passed on to the next card and the person after that, and so on and so forth.

I watched this before social distancing had really kicked in hardcore. But one thing that I’m hearing from a lot of people, and is true for me too, is how aware we are now—in person, but also even in fiction—every time people touch each other. I was like, “Oh, don’t do that.” This is a movie that’s just super, wonderfully paranoid about this. You’re just hyperaware of all the little connections that we make with people in our very crowded modern world.

Onion: I believe that the CDC investigator, played by Kate Winslet, actually makes a little speech about face touching, which is another aspect of this movie that didn’t sink in with me back in 2011. Now face touching is all I think about.

Adams: Because Contagion is about a pandemic spreading all over the place, it has a kind of conspiratorial air to it. But it is also deeply institutionalist in a lot of ways. It really is about how the CDC will save us. WHO will save us. There will be bad bloggers, who are bad because they’re not part of an established newspaper. Maybe they write about things, but they’re all so unreliable. At the end, the law will come back in and punish them. The federal response in this movie is so much more competent and inspiring than what we have seen in the U.S. so far.

Onion: There are moments that are seeded throughout it that make you distrust the government response a little bit. But other than those minor exceptions, the government actions are great, and they work pretty well. It ends up being a movie that puts a lot of trust in the government’s public health efforts.

Adams: Contagion puts its faith in middle management. Soderbergh made rules for this movie as Scott Burns was writing it. One of them was, “This is going to be a disaster movie where we don’t see the president.” There are no senators or presidents or governors or any of those upper echelon people in it. We get a vague wind from something that happens to Kate Winslet that the upper levels of government are not doing everything they could. But the people whose job it is specifically to deal with this kind of thing are doing so.

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