Daughters, Fathers and Pandemics
Steven Soderbergh's new film, "Contagion," is a story of the good that follows when daughters are courageous and fathers are attentive.
The narrative premise is a pandemic that kills millions worldwide in a matter of days. Quickly, it appears the lack of effective defenses to the virus will destroy human society.
The movie's hero is an epidemiologist and laboratory biologist played by Jennifer Ehle. A key lieutenant to Laurence Fishburne's head of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta, she makes the decisions that yield a working vaccine. First, Ehle recognizes that Elliot Gould in San Francisco has the unique background and imagination required to grow enough of the virus in isolation so that experiments can even be conducted. Then, as leader of the effort to develop a vaccine within the CDC, she makes an unauthorized and selfless decision to conduct an ad hoc clinical trial with a single participant: herself.
Self-administering an untested vaccine or drug is a familiar movie trope for heroism, to be sure. What makes the Soderbergh treatment original is the manner in which Ehle exposes herself.
Ehle leaves the CDC and visits her infected father in the hospital. Her father objects initially, of course, but she presses her decision and they talk it through. It so happens that Ehle and her screen father, also a scientist, speak the same language. She asks him to recall a doctor he brought her up to regard as a hero, a man who won a Nobel prize for similar daring. Then comes the emotional punch, and it is entirely visual: recognizing the moral justness of his daughter's decision, approving her courage and admiring her ambition, he strokes her face with his infected hands. Then he passively receives her kiss on his forehead, sealing the communication of the disease.
In a lesser filmmaker's camera, the scene might have read like a blessing. But this father has no such power, and Soderbergh knows it. The scope of parental influence was determined years ago. Ehle is making an independent decision, her father's life now a model of conduct she references on her own terms. Dad deserves a visit because, well, he's family; but he's informed of his daughter's professional decision as a colleague and invited by her to be a collaborator. Lucky man.
There are normal mortals in the story, too, coping and helping one another survive. Matt Damon's character is married to Gwenyth Paltrow's, the very host by which the disease launches itself from Hong Kong to Japan, Chicago and Minneapolis. But that's beside the point in Damon's corner of the midwwest. When Paltrow and her young son (by a prior relationship) die, Damon is adrift in grief and confined to quarantine. At this moment, his teenage daughter appears and gives Damon the new mission of protecting her. Not that the teenager herself is in need; she has her mother's family in Wisconsin, which she's left out of concern that her dad not be alone in his sorrow. You can argue whether Damon proves too controlling of his teenage daughter's behavior, though the scenes where the two move around town give him plenty to be protective about. But his daughter tolerates the lines he draws, implicitly aware she's protecting him as much or more than he is her.Continued on the next page