article

09.23.11

The Distorted Science of Contagion

Steven Soderbergh tries for plausible reality in ‘Contagion’—but ends up doing just the opposite, and further confuses the wobbly public debate about infectious diseases, says Dr. Kent Sepkowitz.

One thing we learned from our recent spate of natural disasters, disease epidemics, and worldwide wars is that here in the United States, we have an expert for everything. Take, for example, Hurricane Irene: meteorologists were retrieved from wherever meteorologists usually are and brought before the TV camera to soberly discuss what happens when a low-pressure isobar meets upper-atmospheric turbulence or the impact of ocean wind shear on our daily weather. Sure, their heads bob and weave too much when they speak, and their hands flutter and dive, but, man, are they believable.

Not so long ago, the infectious-disease community was just like the meteorologists’. Under the camera’s glare, we too were cobweb riddled, our sport coats clashed with our ties, we frowned at the wrong time and smiled at the really wrong time, we said “uh” and “uh” and “wait, uh” too much. Yes, we were dusty and stiff, but we, too, had credibility.

Well, those days are over. The surprisingly boring movie Contagion, has arrived, signaling the end of balmy youth for the field of infectious diseases. We are important now—really important. Hollywood wants us! Yep, we’ve ascended into the hot air of moviemaking, advising bigwigs and small fry on the delicate subtleties of our marvelous world. More than 60 years after the introduction of penicillin, we finally have found the fast lane.

Perhaps it was the search for the perfect villain that brought showbiz to our doorstep: the rogue Soviets with long scars or the chilly oil barons with strange garb and faintly Muslim leanings no longer cut the mustard. They were too familiar, too worn out, and perhaps James Bond had by now killed them all off. It was time to restock and reload, time for a new brand of evil-doer. What better than microbial pathogens to step into the void? Infections are great in so many ways: there’s a wide variety of potential choices, they are invisible, and they are completely without overbearing agents or odd dietary needs. At the start of Contagion, this merger of our mutual interests hits the mark. The idea, after all, is wonderful—a mysterious virus that appears to attack only affluent people, especially hot babes, or else goofy Asian guys who already were sweating too much. From the first anonymous cough, it’s a delightful descent into that funhouse of mild terror—oh my God, they even got Gwyneth!—that represents movie going at its most joyful. In this particular epidemic, we learn that touching, sharing a glass, or grabbing a subway handrail may prove fatal. Kissing may be fatal. And our hero, an admirably schlubby Matt Damon, alone takes action. He locks up his (hot) teen daughter out of harm’s way—for her own sake. The movie could have been, should have been, The Blob, 21st-centurystyle.

But science and show biz always have been bad together, and after a bit the movie sours. The very thing most ballyhooed by the flacks and experts and talking heads, the movie’s careful hewing to real science—they’re using actual office lobbies at the CDC, and some of the actors spent time with public-health professionals!— actually stops it dead in its tracks. Detail after cautious detail accumulates to spoil the fun, until we’re left with is the sort of truly dull, sanctimonious mess usually reserved for Al Gore.

For Hollywood it’s no real loss—they can (and will) always make another crappy movie. But for the infectious disease community, it’s trouble for countless sad reasons. First is our jilted-guy realization that they “um” never really loved us, they just wanted to franchise our content, develop a new product line. Infectious disease was for them not a specialty, it was an opportunity. It’s not outbreaks they are interested in, but “outbreaks!” They know that people are too afraid of real illness ever to go near a movie about one. There has never been, nor will there be, a big movie about a family with the breast cancer gene affecting mother and daughter, grandmother and sister, despite the intrinsic drama, the ethical quandaries, the opportunities for big-time acting.

Contagion places the true threat of an infectious disease epidemic out there beyond the ken, in the safe zone, that never-never land shared by Godzilla and zombies.

Plus, this sort of phony attention to epidemics serves further to undermine and distort the already wobbly public debate about infectious diseases. The eagerness to pump something up to Hollywood size removes the opportunity to have the sober deliberations necessary to deal with any real medical problem. We no longer are dealing with pathogens, we are dealing with Superbugs. We don’t have worrisome pockets of antibiotic resistance that require thought and patience and restraint, but rather threats to the fabric of society. Why, we can’t even have a half-assed outbreak of seasonal flu anymore without world-health experts choppering in to advise everyone to remain calm, damn it!—before choppering out to the next crisis.

Although Contagion carefully tries to construct a plausible reality, it ends up doing the opposite. After all, moviegoers don’t want to watch something that is real. We have sluggish documentaries for that. We want to watch something that evokes the real—from a safe remove. Contagion places the true threat of an infectious-disease epidemic out there beyond the ken, in the safe zone, that never-never land shared by the Blob and Godzilla and zombies. These are threats that generate a comfortable terror, the kind you can leave behind on your seat at Loews.