'Contagion:' A Political Thriller In The Obama Era

In the 1970s, the era of Watergate and Vietnam and many more official perfidies, Hollywood gave us a new genre of movies. The bad guys were great big, faceless institutions—corporations or the government, it didn't matter; or sometimes

MV5BMTY3MDk5MDc3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzAyNTg0Ng@@._V1._SY317_CR0,0,214,317_.jpg
In the 1970s, the era of Watergate and Vietnam and many more official perfidies, Hollywood gave us a new genre of movies. The bad guys were great big, faceless institutions—corporations or the government, it didn't matter; or sometimes corporations in cahoots with the government. The good guys were anything but faceless: they had rugged, sexy, sexy faces, that belonged to A-list stars like Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. They played lone-wolf investigators, characters straight out of the film noir tradition: tormented by a longing for justice, all but undone by the fallen state of the world.

They usually were identifiably left-wing. For instance "Serpico," played by Al Pacino, was a cop, but he was also a hippie—fat beard, floppy hat, cuddly dog. Frequently, they were journalists—think "All the President's Men." If they weren't, they acted like journalists, for they were always, at bottom, investigators—even if they were only, like all those Biblical prophets in the Old Testament, accidentally drafted into the role, like Gene Hackman in "The Conversation," in which he played a surveillance expert who accidentally gathers evidence of a potential murder. In "Three Days of the Condor" Redford returns from lunch to find all his colleagues at the CIA front where he works have been murdered—because, naturally, they had learned too much about a CIA-sponsored effort to manipulate world oil markets.

That was the 1970s: never before had so defiantly anti-authoritarian popular culture been so popular. So popular, in fact, that by the end of the decade even middle-of-the-road pablum took on aspects of the general outline, just because that's the way movies were by then were supposed to be. For instance, in Beatty's "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), when Warren Beatty bargains with his guardian angel to return to Earth, the vessel his soul inhabitants is a stinking corporate tycoon whose schemes which Beatty, of course, cannot but overturn.

Things are different now. Investigating is out. "We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards," as Barack Obama said concerning the shadowy crimes of the Bush administration.

I thought about that recently when I saw "Contagion," the new thriller about a global epidemic starring Matt Damon. It's a 1970s conspiracy movie turned inside out. It's quite the cultural testament for the Age of Obama.

[SPOILER ALERT--PLOT DETAILS FOLLOW]
The good guy turns out to be Lawrence Fishburne, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control. He's a quiet, cool, efficient bureaucrat, infinitely compassionate for his colleague out in the field whom he keeps on begging to take time off for herself. (Who needs unions when America is filled with benevolent bosses like that? And, of course, she doesn't take his advice: she works, and works, and works, to the point of contracting the dread disease herself—isn't that what we're all supposed to be doing to guarantee continued employment in our blessed age of austerity?) The media keeps on trying to press him into sensationalism. He's cool about that, too. He's human, to be sure: at one point he tells his beloved fiancée about secret plans to evacuate Chicago, giving her a jump on the chaos that ensues. That gets out in the media, and we see him scapegoated for a peccadillo, probably to lose his career, despite his manifest heroism throughout. But he's even noble in that: willingly, maturely, he graciously prepares to fall on his sword, accepting the consequences of his actions. (For a contrasting view of the CDC as a seventies-conspiracy-style victim, see Steven King's 1978 novel "The Stand.")

And here's the point about that: the film is constructed to make us feel ashamed for ever suspecting him in the first place—even though he's the guy that every other paranoia movie we've ever seen, all those ones rooted in the seventies paradigm, has trained us to suspect. We're made to feel ashamed for identifying with the hectoring media types who victimize him. Of all the panoply of powerful institutions presented in the movie, the media is the only one for whom the viewer is to feel no sympathy. "Nothing spreads like fear" is the advertising tagline. And spreading fear, according to the picture's logic, is what the media is all about.

Indeed, we're made to loathe one investigator in particular—the guy who ends up as the film's preeminent villain, worse, far worse, in fact than the multinational corporation responsible for the superbug in the first place, who it turns out is really only kinda sorta responsible, because it was all a fluke accident.

The bad guy, you see, is a blogger.

A really, really evil blogger. A moral monster, in fact.

It sets up like this. Jude Law's Alan Krumwiede is the mad investigator of 1970s paranoia movie fame—the guy who the Powers-That-Be always mark for death, after all, he always turns out to be right, and have the Powers-That-Be's number. Not here. Krumwiede claims to be on the trail of a conspiracy: that there already exists a remedy, a homeopathic medicine, that can already cure the superbug. Only the powers that be are covering it up because there's money to be made by developing a nicely corporate vaccine—which the Powers-That-Be proceed to do, as millions of people die.

But things are not as they seem.

How wicked is the blogger character? As the film unfolds, he reports on his blog what happens when he contracts the disease, then takes the homeopathic remedy, and is cured. Then, in the last reel, we learn what really happened: he faked having the disease, so he could fake being cured, all to cash in on the investment position he holds in the homeopathic remedy.

These days, Serpico goes to jail. Because it turns out he was the bad guy all along. Crazy Serpico, thinking our protectors are actually society's malefactors.

Why do I feel like there's something Obama-ite about all this? Consider the Lawrence Fishburne character He's just decent, decent, decent. Dare I say he's an Obama stand-in? A figurehead for the notion that decent, public-spirited technocrats--acting beyond the constraints of "bumper sticker slogans"--are all we need to set the world alright. It's a world where the right decisions can only get made when we trust the technocrats to do it behind closed doors, without pesky populist investigators getting in the way.

Just like this week, Obama's former director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, now the vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup, said in The New Republic:

In an 1814 letter to John Taylor, John Adams wrote that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” That may read today like an overstatement, but it is certainly true that our democracy finds itself facing a deep challenge: During my recent stint in the Obama administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget, it was clear to me that the country’s political polarization was growing worse—harming Washington’s ability to do the basic, necessary work of governing. If you need confirmation of this, look no further than the recent debt-limit debacle, which clearly showed that we are becoming two nations governed by a single Congress—and that paralyzing gridlock is the result.

So what to do? To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.

Who could disagree with that? Hippies with fat beards, floppy hats, and cuddly dog; bloggers, maybe. The people who spread fear. Certainly not the trustworthy powers that be who we can always, always count on to have our best interests at heart. Certainly not the whistleblowers—which the Obama administration has targeted as no administration has ever before.

The seventies are over, kids. We're all supposed to surrender to trust.

About Rick Perlstein

Comments

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.