“Contagion” is, of course, a 9/11-anniversary movie, though probably not one that the public was expecting. Soderbergh appears to be saying, “I’ll show you something far worse than a terrorist attack, and no fundamentalist fanatic planned it.” The film suggests that, at any moment, our advanced civilization could be close to a breakdown exacerbated by precisely what is most advanced in it. And the movie shows us something else: heroic work by scientists and Homeland Security officials. We can’t help noticing that with two exceptions—a French doctor who works for the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) and a renegade epidemiologist in San Francisco (Elliott Gould)—the heroes are all employees of the federal government, and instinctively factual people. No one prays, no one calls on God. “Contagion” lacks any spiritual dimension—except for its passionate belief in science and rational administration. The movie says: When there’s real trouble, we’re in the hands of the reality-based community. No one else matters.
There are no absolute assurances that wildfire will not from time to time spill over into settlements, any more than markets won’t fizz and bubble; but we know how to keep such outbreaks from happening routinely. It’s messy, irritating to fundamentalists (both those of the wilderness and of the market), and not cheap. So far, we continue to drop money and fire retardant on the flames. That may not quench the fire but it makes good political theater.
At some point, however, the money will run out completely and it will no longer be possible to pretend that we can rebuild; everything will simply burn to ash. We will have to deal with the landscape itself. The power of fire resides in its power to propagate: you control that power by controlling fire’s environment. So too the power of fiscal contagion requires control over the entire scene.
For the present we’re caught between two nasty fires. It’s time we put some distance between ourselves and both of them. We can’t control the winds, we only know they will blow again.