So I saw “Contagion” recently, and I can’t get it out of my head – and not just in terms of the increased frequency of my hand sanitizer usage. If you haven’t seen it (and if you haven’t, you should – it’s a taut thriller that moves as quickly and efficiently as its viral subject), here’s the main thing I keep circling back to: basically, it’s about how the federal government saves the day. Faced with “MEV-1,” a hyper-contagious virus that becomes a global pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control isolate the bug, study it, and develop a vaccine. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security distribute it. The picture’s primary heroes are the CDC’s “Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer” and its Level-4 Biosafety Lab tech; one gives her life in battling the virus, the other risks hers, selflessly and modestly, to test the vaccine.
That Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay creates a giant problem that is solved by a giant government is, on the face, nothing revolutionary; within the context of the film, it’s the narrative arc that makes the most sense. But “Contagion“ ‘s decidedly positive portrait of government is also something of a rebuke to the notion that government is the problem and the private sector, the free market, and “individual liberties” are the solution – even to natural disasters, which Tea Party favorites like Ron Paul insist warrant no response at the federal level.
For that matter, “Contagion“ ‘s only portrayal of state government (the Minnesota Department of Health) is that of an organization that serves entirely as an obstruction to the CDC – fretting over economic damage from a possible panic, pinching pennies over an emergency triage center (“Is this coming out of your budget or ours?”).
The pandemic portrayed in “Contagion” is one that it takes giant organizations to contain: the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, FEMA, Homeland Security, the CDC. Contrary to the bogeyman theatrics of Ronald Reagan, in this story, the words “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” are not “terrifying”; they are literally a lifesaver. You can walk away from “Contagion” with a lot of interpretations, but not that a virus like “MEV-1” could have been wiped out by the private sector.