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Contagion's Reminder: In the Post-9/11 Age, Fear Goes Viral

Contagion gives space to a timely question: How do you stop the spread of one virus without also spreading panic?

The most allegorical scene in the new film Contagion comes in the first half hour. Epidemiologist Erin Meers, played by Kate Winslet, is reasoning with a selection of salty Minnesota lawmakers who can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact that a deadly virus is spreading through their state.

“So it’s an epidemic now?” one woman says. “An epidemic of what?”

We can hear both fear and scorn in her voice. She remembers the hullabaloo over swine flu and wants to make sure people don’t overreact. “We need to keep people calm,” she insists. Meers looks weary and tries to explain: This is serious. This demands an overreaction. We need to warn people immediately.

“But it’s the biggest shopping weekend of the year,” the woman complains. It’s hard to tell: Is she worried about the spread of the disease or the blow to her state’s economy?

Watching this scene, it’s hard not to think of that balancing act of fear and action, the War on Terror, especially because Contagion was released on 9/11’s 10th anniversary weekend. When social order collapses almost immediately after people start dropping like flies—when big cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco give way to looting and riots and uncollected trash—we think of post-Katrina New Orleans. When unfounded theories about a government conspiracy and a homeopathic cure spread through an enterprising blogger, we’re reminded of Wikileaks and Julian Assange. When government officials and journalists hmm and haw over how to react, we think of Hurricane Irene, the recent one-two punch of overkill and feeble preparation that needlessly shut down New York City even as it wreaked havoc on unsuspecting Vermont. “I’d rather the news story be that we overreacted than have people dying because we didn’t do enough,” Laurence Fishburne’s CDC bureaucrat says in the movie. What if the news story is both?

Even the critics have been wondering how to interpret this understated terror of a movie. The New York Times paints Contagion as a satire of our post-9/11 perpetual state of fear, and a bite back at the Tea Party’s anti-government hysteria; Time, meanwhile, plays it straightfaced, taking it as a wakeup call and claiming that the movie's "prime lesson is to wear rubber gloves and cloth mouth-mask" to dodge the cougher nearby. Contagion gives space to a timely question: How do you stop the spread of one virus without also spreading panic, which, as we noted last week, is all too easy to do in the era of social networking?

This film gets its terrifying quality from its plausibility. There are no over-the-top special effects, just a cough and a sheen of sweat before someone drops dead. It also scares us with the notion that nobody can be trusted to be selfless and rational. “Where’s the opportunity?” a hedge fund guy asks Jude Law’s rendition of Julian Assange. “Is this coming out of your budget or mine?” whines the same cranky state official from Minnesota when Meers sets up a stadium-turned-hospice center for the dying. "Help me," a coughing woman pleads in a grocery store, not caring that whoever she reaches out to will be the next to die.

In the end, the government workers and the scientists are the ones who save us. The film seems to be saying to the scrappy renegades, “Move over, this is a job for the experts.” But the feds aren’t blameless, either. Everyone is a villain, but they're not always wrong: the nurses go on strike because they don’t want to get sick, the insider tells his loved ones to evacuate before the rest of the city, the Homeland Security officer “makes sure nobody knows until everybody knows,” the blogger calls out the government for keeping the public in the dark. You even have to wonder if Matt Damon's Everyman, Mitch, who locks himself and his daughter in the house for months, is hyper-paranoid or the only one who really gets it. Watching Contagion pulls at our allegiances and forces us to determine who we'd trust to save us in a crisis.

A highly contagious virus isn't quite the same as, say, a collective fear of terrorism; the latter brings us together while the former drives us apart. But in each case, it's impossible to keep people both informed and calm. What we don't know can hurt us, yet we're also hurt by a tangle of information overload. Contagion reminds us that in an age where millions of people live-tweet catastrophes, where both a virus and a news report can spread to another continent in a matter of hours, where government has repeatedly failed us when disaster strikes, when information itself takes on a life of its own, we've not yet reached that nexus where serenity and caution meet. We've not figured out how to use communication to our benefit without it contributing to our downfall. And the more interconnected we become, the more likely that nexus will remain a pipe dream.

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