15 September 2011

Contagion, the new film directed by Steven Soderbergh, is the best movie about HIV's impact on the gay community ever made.

This is a strange statement, considering that there are no gay characters in the movie, and the fast-spreading disease depicted is certainly not HIV. What Soderbergh manages to pull off is showing us how a virus can rob people of the sexual lives they believe they are entitled to. Matt Damon's blonde, clearly heterosexual daughter, having survived the sudden death of her mother and young brother, is imprisoned with her father as her suburban Minnesota neighborhood is convulsed by the disease. She frantically texts her boyfriend and others about her situation, and how she might recover her romantic life.*

The national panic that ensues when the virus takes root in America is familiar to anyone who experienced the onset of AIDS in this country. Soderbergh focuses on the efforts of noble doctors in the CDC and WHO to understand and defeat the disease. The military is a vaguely sinister force butting in at unwanted moments. The President is never shown or given a voice, and nobody mentions him until at least an hour into the film: an interesting echo of Ronald Reagan's longtime refusal to talk about HIV.

By transposing the fear felt by gays in New York, West Hollywood, and San Francisco** onto Matt Damon's Midwestern family, Soderbergh does a service to millions of American moviegoers who would never see a thoughtful film about gay people. Philadelphia, released in 1993, discussed gay life and was popular, but a fat lot of good it did the gay community: Don't Ask Don't Tell was made law that very same year. I suspect that Contagion will be more effective in educating people who believe that gay sex is the root cause of all bad stuff.

*This is my interpolation. It would have been clearer if she were shown writing emails, but as we know, all teenagers are functionally illiterate and use numbers as hieroglyphs!

**In the film, San Francisco is being stalked by the muckraking blogger Jude Law. This was a very poorly drawn character.

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