So I went to see Contagion last weekend. The first thing I did afterwards was lash out at and threaten our followers on Twitter for no good reason. The second thing I did was check out what the alternative medicine crowd thought of it. I thought it’d be fun to see how angry they were over certain aspects, but what I found was even more disturbing than what I expected. [EDIT: Spoilers ahead!]
In the movie Jude Law plays a homeopathy salesman / blogger named Alan Krumwiede who is exposed for the fraud he is in the end. He helps create panic over the epidemic, profits off of it, and then accuses “big pharma” and the government of doing exactly that while portraying himself as a tireless crusader against corruption. When he’s arrested after a hedge fund manager wears a wire to bust him for fraud, manslaughter, and other charges, his devout followers pool their money to bail him out like any cult would for its leader. In other words it’s just like real life.
So I was pretty surprised to come across this blog post from a website called “Homeopathy World,” run by someone named Mary Aspinwall. It’s basically a toned-down version of the Krumwiede character’s blog, “Truth Serum Now.” Mary is mostly happy with how homeopathy is portrayed in the movie because she’s apparently so devoted to the alternative medicine mythology that cognitive dissonance prevented her from understanding the Krumwiede storyline.
To be fair, Contagion doesn’t revolve around Krumwiede. It’s a Steven Soderbergh film, and it’s very similar in its decentralized structure to Syriana and Traffic. There really isn’t a main character and the parallel narratives give more of a ‘big picture’ perspective than most movies. So you’ve got the widower of America’s patient zero (Matt Damon) dealing with the loss of his wife and son, doctors at the CDC (Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne) trying to do the best they can with the bureaucracy they have, a WHO epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) investigating the origins of the disease, and so on. So it’s understandable that someone wouldn’t get parts of the story, but not so much if it’s the one aspect of it in which you’re supposed to be especially interested.
The way in which Aspinwall misunderstands the story is a great microcosm of how alternative medicine conspiracy theorists misunderstand the way science works. Plot points which reinforce her beliefs are blown up way out of proportion and the rest are ignored. Here’s what she thinks happened:
Alan is highly suspicious of the motives of pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. When he himself falls sick he chooses an alternative route, dosing himself with a (fictitious) natural remedy called “Forsythia”on his vlog (video log). After making a rapid online recovery he begins to attract millions of hits, as people desperately try to get information and protect themselves from the virus, which is killing one in four people who contract it within days.
Law’s character doesn’t fall sick. It’s revealed that he was faking the symptoms at the end. When the authorities confront him with his test results which prove this, Alan replies by saying something like, “Well, of course your tests would say that” in a cold tone which implied that that would be his official defense against their allegations. Even if he were just honestly mistaken about his treatment’s efficacy, he should still be surprised that any tests would show he never was sick – unless, of course, he were faking his symptoms all along.
Another sign that Alan is knowingly lying comes earlier in the film when he meets up with an unidentified woman he seems to care greatly for. She asks him for his magic potion and he tells her that he has none left because his house was robbed. The way he struggled with telling her this hinted that he was probably lying. At first I thought this was a lie born out of greed, but that’s too simple. Too much of a cheap shot.
If you were totally dishonest and making a living out of selling fake medicine to gullible people, would you recommend your own product to people you really cared about? Probably not. You probably wouldn’t bring it up at all. And if things got really desperate, like they do in Contagion, you’d probably find some way to nudge them towards going with an effective treatment without simply telling them that you’re a snake oil salesman. That’s exactly what Alan does with his lady friend.
If the alt-med worldview is the one Soderbergh adopts here, which is what Aspinwall believes, then these two scenes make no sense at all. But alternative medicine and things that don’t make sense kind of go together. If I made a Venn Diagram of the two, it would just be one circle inside another.
If you’re still not convinced Alan was a con man, look at this. It’s actually a screenshot from Aspinwall’s blog with a still from the movie:
Alan’s shown wearing this kind of get-up throughout much of the movie, and almost exclusively after he’s already “cured himself.” But why does the inventor and supplier of the cure need to protect himself so much more thoroughly than pretty much anyone else in the movie? If he comes down with symptoms again, he could just drink some of his magical tap water and be cured. Soderbergh’s practically bashing the audience over the head with the idea that Alan’s a liar, but Aspinwall’s blinding herself to all of this and concluding that Alan “does come across as genuine in his beliefs.”
Here’s another funny part of her review:
At one dramatic high point he even catches a high-ranking government spokesman in an out right [sic] lie on live TV.
This is technically true. Laurence Fishburne’s character warned a family member on Facebook to leave her city before news of the massive outbreak and ensuing panic. It’s pretty unethical, but also understandable under the circumstances. It also has absolutely nothing to do with who is right in regards to the science. The entire government could be building an underground city for high-ranking officials with a 10:1 female-to-male ratio a la Dr. Strangelove and it still wouldn’t make Alan’s customer testimonies more reliable than actual epidemiological research.
Oblivious to irony, Aspinwall then pitches her homeopathy kit at the end of her review. When your own way of making a living is so similar to a movie villain, you can either acknowledge that you’re an awful person and try to change or you can do your own revision of the movie and turn the villain into a hero. And it’s pretty clear which option homeopaths prefer.