"Contagion" is one of the top films in America just now. It has been bested only by two movies at the box office—one about cartoon lions and another about a maid and her boss.
"Contagion" is scary. It's a phlegm-filled tale about an Asian virus that infects the globe in a few days. School's cancelled, millions die. Yes, the National Guard takes over the country, but basically everything turns out fine. Matt Damon and his daughter survive to watch everything on TV. The last thirty minutes of "Contagion" are a sugary, Disney-worthy ending in contrast to this over-the-top British movie about an epidemic.
Gwyneth Paltrow's character, a corporate executive, perishes in the first moments of "Contagion." Kate Winslet, playing an epidemiologist, lasts a bit longer. For inexplicable reasons, the movie's biggest male stars are immune to the deadly pig virus. One actor, secure in this gender-based immunity, gives precious, lottery-assigned medicine to the son of a coworker of a different race, signaling the compassion and decency still present in the middle of a crisis. Or something.
There is a great deal wrong with "Contagion." Under the pretense of a realistic movie, with input from a real scientist, Hollywood made the opposite. It is doing the underappreciated world of public health policy a disservice. With its grotesque oversimplfication of what it purports to illustrate, "Contagion" will contribute to scientific misinformation and ignorance.
Here are a few of "Contagion's" most egregious errors:
1. No Industry
In the movie, the only corporation of any consequence is a hedge fund. There are no other companies involved. Poof!—a vaccine simply appears. The movie makers either don't know where medicines come from—are elves involved?—or felt that the public hates the industry so much that it would be easier to not have a drug company in the plot.
Memo to Hollywood: No U.S. or international government agency has the means to a) develop, b) test or c) manufacture a remedy for a global pandemic. The corporate world will have to be called in to help during the next crisis, as it has in the past, assisting thought leaders in government and academia.
2. CDC Worship
The movie assumes the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) could vanquish the epidemic. This is not likely.
As many readers know, the U.S. is in the midst of an anti-scientific backlash in which significant numbers of parents believe childhood vaccinations are dangerous. Whooping cough, measles and other once-vanquished diseases are coming back because significant numbers of kids get no shots to prevent them. Some of the genesis for the parental confusion can, alas, be laid at the doorstep of the CDC.
It is an honorable and competent organization. But the CDC bumbled through the early days of the investigation into childhood autism. The CDC gave smart parents reason to doubt biomedical research. The impact of such errors should never be underestimated. Correcting those mistakes and explaining the facts to the public is an ongoing process.
So it is implausible to suppose, as the "Contagion" filmmakers do, that the CDC has the operational and intellectual resources to handle a truly global health crisis. Most likely, the CDC would call up a professor at Johns Hopkins, and maybe someone from FDA, and issue a hopeful-sounding press release.
Let's hope no one in Washington sees the movie. The movie could create complacency about what the U.S. or European governments will be able to do. "Contagion" could befuddle elected officials even further. After decades of partisan disagreement, after years of budget acrimony over trivial federal programs, U.S. politicians lack money and ideas to create a vitally important, smarter, stronger CDC. They even might do the opposite, seeing the movie and tagging the CDC agenda as too large.
3. A Sample Size of N=1
In the movie's scientific shorthand, because the vaccine works in one monkey, it works in all primates. Because the vaccine works in one person, the human race is saved. Whew! Making vaccines is like pressing the "Easy" button, especially if you have a courageous scientist willing to plunge a syringe into her own thigh.
Hundreds or thousands of patients? Trials around the world? Years or decades? Borrrrring. Checking or confirming scientific findings? Sorry, no time.
4. An Instant Cure
In typical Hollywood fashion, the virus is grown in the lab in a few days; its genetic and molecular structures are worked out more or less during a lunch hour. Soon a movie cure is ready. The film's timeline is ridiculously, defectively compressed.
In the age of Twitter and Facebook, in which we quickly see that someone halfway across the country has a new baby, job or diploma, Hollywood believes that science must generate similarly instant results. It's a bogus premise. And a harmful one.
In the real world, where many vaccines are grown slowly in chicken eggs, there is an ominous gap between the attention span of the average person and the actual pace of science. "Contagion" will widen that gap. As the world's problems become more complex, and our attention spans contract, it may become impossible to have a serious public discussion. Hollywood has befouled the collective mental landscape with fantasies.
In brief, the public will change the channel while a government official is still trying to explain the next crisis. Dialogue between a government and its citizens, between a company and its customers, will be impossible if the challenges and timelines of real science are novel, foreign, incomprehensible. An entertainment-centric culture, a delusion-driven culture, as Neil Postman pointed out, is a troubled culture. People who say they are making a movie about reality have some minimal responsibility to be faithful to the details of that reality.
In fairness, "Contagion" does two things in a memorable way. It clearly shows how rapidly diseases can spread in an era of global air travel. Some of the most evocative scenes are of airports freshly devoid of people once the epidemic is in full force. And Gwyneth's scalp flaps down over her face during an autopsy. The movie probably got that right.d9A2t49mkex