Movie review: “Contagion”

Contagion (2011)

A thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak.
 Steven Soderbergh
 Scott Z. Burns
 Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law (source: IMDB)

When I watched “Contagion” in September 2011, I felt grateful for all the empty seats around me in the theater.  Watching this movie in a crowded theater must have been like watching “Jaws” in a shark tank. Very quickly, you develop a fear of other people.

Actually, it is the fear of the microorganisms we potentially carry that this movie feeds on.

A highly contagious and deadly virus – formed when the wrong bat met the wrong pig – spreads around the world because of Gweneth Paltrow. And yet, this is an understated movie. The filmmakers set out to make a realistic movie about an epidemic, and the roles are played with subtlety and honesty.

This isn’t a disaster film, but an ensemble piece about individual characters coping with this crisis.
    The villains of this movie interest me most.

The obvious villain is the virus itself, and if you’re paying attention you can catch Eliot Gould’s character describing it into his cell phone as related to the paramyxovirus family. The paramyxoviruses include Hendra and NIPAH, measles, mumps and … the one that dominates my thoughts every day – and for many others in the Kind Hearts In Action community – canine distemper.

When movies get it right, they can be powerful educational tools, and there is much that this movie gets right about viruses. To be sure, this film presents an exaggeration, a worst-case scenario. But you will walk away understanding more about viral diseases.

In the film, this fictional virus – called MeV1 but possibly intended as a version of NIPAH – spreads through contact, not just from human touching human, but from a human touching something an infected person had touched. For example, the waiter who picks up the glass Gweneth Paltrow just drained is doomed.

The way this virus spreads is different from distemper because distemper usually is transmitted among canines via the aerosol droplets expelled from a sick dog. As a mostly airborne virus, it spreads very quickly from animal to animal in enclosed places like shelters. Also, distemper does not transmit to humans, and it is not spreading at epidemic proportions. There is a vaccine for distemper, but unfortunately the disease still hits puppies, strays and unvaccinated dogs, spreading either through contact with wildlife or exposure in a shelters.

Now, back to the villains of the movie, and this is where I will be giving away major plot points, but I find it necessary. So, if you don’t like SPOILERS, stop reading. If you want to hear my thoughts about how this movie reflects our fight against canine distemper, keep reading.

The other villain of the movie – and it is not obvious at first – is Alan Krumwiede, played by Jude Law. Krumwiede is a former journalist and blogger who runs a website that proclaims to have a cure for this terrible disease.

Sound familiar?

Well, aside from the fact that Krumwiede and I have similar job descriptions – I am also a former journalist with a website that proclaims to have a cure for an incurable disease – I hope the similarities end there.

But comparisons are going to be inevitable. I can see it coming. Someday,  someone will ask me, “Oh, you’re like that Jude Law character in ‘Contagion,’ aren’t you?”


Well, perhaps as a way of inoculating you against this perception, let’s discuss Krumwiede, why he is the villain and how you can see the signs of his flawed character early in the movie.
Our first encounter with him is in the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, where he is trying to get a reporter interested in a video he found online of an Asian man collapsing on a bus. When the reporter raises some skepticism about the news value, he snaps and pulls back the story. Then he threatens her with a lawsuit if one word of what he said gets printed in the Chronicle.

Red flag! Red Flag! Red Flag!

First off, everything said to a reporter is on the record. You can’t tell a reporter something and then retroactively try to take it back. Krumwiede should know that. But the reporter, now realizing Krumwiede is too big a headache to put up with, kicks him out, tells him to not call her anymore.

“Print is dead!” Krumwiede proclaims as he storms out. That may be true, but it is my hope that print journalists will not be replaced by people like Krumwiede.

So anyway, the other problem with Krumwiede is that he changes positions so quickly. When a person tells you one thing on one day and something contradictory the next day, you’ve got to question their honesty. When they switch positions within seconds, you’ve got to question their sanity.

Later on in the movie, Krumwiede posts a video to his website, describing himself as a plague victim, listing his symptoms. Then he takes out what he says is the cure and squirts it into a glass of water and drinks it. “Did it work? If I’m here tomorrow, you’ll know that it did.” And of course, Krumwiede is indeed among the living the next day.

Let’s think this through for a second. What are the red flags here? Where does the credibility of the video fail?

1) It’s just a video. We have no way of confirming what we are looking at. He takes a brown liquid out of a bottle and squirts it into some water. It could simply have been iodine. We also have no way of confirming his symptoms. No doctor has examined him that we know of. The video is also darkly lit, so he doesn’t really have to work hard to look sick. It’s all showmanship.
2) Aside from the name of his cure – which has a vague name that’s hard to remember – he doesn’t explain what it is. He doesn’t talk about how it works, where it came from, who discovered it and how. If it were me, I’d want to know what I am putting into my body and know the risks vs. the health benefits.
3) The video is only of him. No history of other patients being treated or animal studies. One example of one person reacting to a treatment does not prove a treatment. But what’s interesting is that later in the film, we will learn how to recognize a valid treatment. This happens because of one very brave scientist.
4) He is not upfront about the financial ties he has to the cure. Later on, he’s arrested and charged with securities fraud. He had made millions by selling a panicked population his so-called cure.

The other give-away is that in later scenes, Krumwiede wears an air-tight biologic suit as he walks the streets. If he really had been sick and recovered from the virus, he would have no need to protect himself.

Bottom line, he shows us the value of healthy skepticism.

He is not a completely flawed character. Some of what he says rings true. When they do find a vaccine, he points to the possibility that there will be side effects that no one had anticipated. While what he says is possible – and it has happened in other vaccines – his criticism is not useful. What other options are there?

Well, obviously, he is trying to discredit the value of the vaccine to make a case for his cure. Thankfully, he ends up in handcuffs soon after.

While no one is perfect in this film, what emerges is that the true heroes are the scientists who worked the problem to understand the virus and find the vaccine. They make mistakes, but are able to come to terms with the consequences of those mistakes, especially as part of the big picture of saving the lives of millions.

The thing to remember about people like Krumwiede – and even me – is that we are not scientists or doctors. We didn’t spend the years in school, doing the actual work, testing the theories, arguing, debating and resolving scientific problems. I don’t think scientists should be given free reign. They should be challenged by science journalists, just as experts are challenged in any other field.

But for me, I keep remembering back to when I was in grad school. One day, I repeated some medical fact I had learned to a medical student. He considered what I said and replied, “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

What it means is just because you know a particular medical fact doesn’t mean you will be able to use that on an actual patient. The bit of information has to be taken in context with the complete understanding of how a body works. Yes, a treatment may work under certain circumstances, but change the circumstances and the treatment may be disastrous. That’s why you should go to a doctor when you are sick, or to a vet when your animal is not well.

That’s given me a reasonable amount of caution while I work on the issue of canine distemper and promote Dr. Al Sears’ treatments. This is something I moved into very slowly. It was not until 2008, a couple of years after Dr. Sears retired, that I decided I needed to be a full-out activist for him. That was when a woman in Romania, who was desperate to save her dog, tracked me and begged for help. Her vet took Dr. Sears’ protocol off my website and recreated the serum, ultimately saving at least five dogs.

But what I had done was make it possible for a vet on the other side of the world to find the information that a vet in California had discovered and refined over a 40-year career. It was one vet conferring with another vet, with a little help from me as messenger.

That is the basic premise of the Kind Hearts In Action site, just to give a platform for one experienced veterinarian to connect with other veterinarians who can then use his treatments to save the lives of dogs. And then, we try to connect dog owners with the vets who may be able to save their canine companions. We aim to maintain a transparency about these treatments, answering any questions quickly and without any payment required. [Donations are always welcome. We are a non-profit organization.]

When fighting a disease, getting the best information quickly is essential. The better educated our audience, the better the outcomes for patients. That’s why I encourage everyone to check out “Contagion.”

This movie will scare you, but the lessons you learn may make a big difference in your life.

— Ed Bond
May 21, 2014

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