Making the Grades
If the recent H1N1 flu season didn’t send you rushing out to buy hand sanitizer, then Contagion likely will. Sales should soar after the release of this medical thriller about a rapidly spreading virus that causes painful headaches, throat constrictions, seizures and then death, all within hours of exposure.
While movies about deadly epidemics have been done before (think Will Smith in I Am Legend and Matthew McConoughey in Sahara), this one is particularly disturbing because Director Steven Soderbergh doesn’t indulge in dramatic hyperbole. He resists turning all the victims into zombies or pinning the cause on a malicious industrialist. This is pure cell mutation—the kind that has happened before and could realistically happen again. The resulting infection races around the world thanks to personal contact and global travel.
From their offices at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, Doctors Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehie) track the spreading clusters. Leaving from Switzerland, World Health Organization official Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) flies to China to pinpoint the source. And in San Francisco, Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) searches for a way to grow a culture for study after U.S. businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) dies shortly after returning from Hong Kong. Within hours, her son Clark (Griffin Kane) is also dead.
Sent to Minnesota to assess the situation there, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) begins organizing treatment centers in hockey rinks and other large facilities. But medical personnel are failing miserably at fighting a mutation they haven’t even identified. As well, local disease control officials don’t want to be accused of taking inflated precautions.
Meanwhile as Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) mourn the death of Beth and Clark, blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) causes riots when he posts unfounded tales about natural cures for the disease. He further accuses the government and big pharmaceutical companies of holding back information in order to make money from the catastrophe.
The ensuing scenarios come across as all too possible as the population storms grocery stores in search of food, loots and burns businesses, and breaks into fights in food lines and hospital waiting rooms. Ethical issues also arise when limited medical treatment is doled out by a lottery system and one official goes against protocol by warning his wife to get out of town before the city is quarantined.
While growing numbers of body bags, a gruesome medical procedure and a shocking death scene may leave some viewers worrying about the consequences of human contact, other audience members may react differently. Given the possibility of such a situation, how could one prepare? If nothing else, I feel far more motivated to keep my hands away from my face and to restock the hand sanitizer.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Contagion.
One government official faces disciplinary action because he warns his wife to get out of town and join him. Given the same situation, would you want to gather your family members together? Should first responders and medical officials be the first to receive vaccinations? What is the fairest way to distribute the treatment?
While this film includes many plausible depictions, how realistic is it to have all services, such as cell phone, electricity, etc., still working? How long would it take to recover from such a disaster?
How does technology become the hero in this movie? How much trust do you put in it? Are human beings still an important part of the solution equation? Who makes sacrifices in order for the problem to be solved? Why is social distancing an important part of the solution?
What similar medical scares have hit our population? How have government and the general public reacted? What different responses might viewers have to this movie? Do you feel hopeful or fearful at the end of the film? Have you made any type of preparations in anticipation of such an event?