[Spoiler info: This post doesn't give much away, but if you're the type who prefers to know nothing before seeing a movie, steer clear until you've seen it]
James Huber wrote about Oakland getting its reps in the baseball-blockbuster “Moneyball” earlier this week.
Another relatively new movie giving San Francisco some screen time is the disaster-blockbuster “Contagion.”
I had looked forward to seeing Contagion since it came out on September 9. Besides having an intriguing premise–a viral epidemic killing at an exponential rate–and a great cast–Jude Law, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet–a lot of the movie was shot in San Francisco.
But when I finally saw the movie last night, it was the portrayal of journalism, specifically blogging, that caught my attention.
Jude Law gives a perfectly sinister performance as San Francisco-based blogger Alan Krumwiede.
We meet Krumwiede early in the movie as he pitches a freelance story to Lorraine Vasquez (Monique Gabriela Curnen), an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle (which gets small cameo in the film).
Krumwiede is convinced mercury in the fish supply is causing the sudden spate of mysterious deaths around the world, but Vasquez isn’t interested. Storming out of the Chronicle offices, Krumwiede shouts that print media is dying. (The implication is that it’s dying ostensibly because it won’t take his conspiracy theory-tainted stories.)
Undeterred, Krumwiede intensifies the coverage of the growing epidemic on his blog (“Truth Serum Now”), where millions of followers hang on his every word.
But while he realizes the severity of the crisis before the “mainstream media” catches on, Krumwiede also has a penchant for paranoia, a mistrust of authority, and a huge ego.
As the epidemic intensifies, Krumwiede begins meeting with a shadowy investor, on a bench in Golden Gate Park, to discuss how they can profit from the virus. This, while he’s publicly delcaring the government’s slow response proof that they’re seeking a way to profit.
Poor-trayal of new media
“Contagion” portrays Krumwiede as an example of new-media gone bad: Paranoid, egotistic, unfiltered, and taking advantage of his millions of trusting followers.
Krumwiede is clearly the villain in the movie. But as with much of “Contagion,” the plot is so erratic that it’s difficult to discern what message the movie truly wishes to send.
Is Krumwiede an example of the internet being untrustworthy? Well, there is the scene with an epidemiologist dismissing her foreign colleague’s mention of something he heard on the internet as inherently false. Then again, television personality Dr. Sanjay Gupta has a cameo in the film interviewing the director of the Center for Disease Control in studio, and bringing Krumwiede in from a satellite feed. Gupta gives as much weight to Krumwiede’s tweets as he does the director’s face-to-face claims.
So should society be listening to freelance journalists who publish on the web, or not? “Contagion” casts Krumwiede’s as an obnoxious, hypocritical, conspiracy-theorist angry at the government and out to make a quick buck at the expense of the dying masses. In doing so, they give a biting indictment of journalism rooted on the web.
The most damning scene of all comes when Krumwiede harasses a San Francisco doctor who is studying the virus, as he leaves his hospital one night. After obnoxiously interrupting the doctor’s phone call, Krumwiede starts rambling on about a Godzilla and Frankenstein virus. The doctor cuts him off:
Get away from here Alan, you’re not a doctor and you’re not a writer… Blogging is not writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation.
A clearly hurt Krumwiede insists that he “is a writer” and is “a journalist, and there’s informed discussion on the blogosphere…”
With this scene, “Contagion” discredits the journalistic value of blogs and the blogosphere. It paints dogged bloggers doing original reporting as obnoxious imbeciles.
The doctor’s line about blogging being graffiti drew plenty of laughter from the audience.
Andrew O’Hehir writes of the scene in a Salon.com review, saying, “an old-school film critic in the screening room, somebody you’ve seen on television many times, just about fell out of his chair cackling and cheering [at the joke by the doctor].”
It was a sharp line, but not altogether true.
A little of the blogging out there is conspiracy-laden and worthless. But most is just good entertainment, and some–an increasingly amount–is quality journalism.
The film’s multiple story lines, none followed very deeply and some essentially not past two scenes, made for such a haphazard plot that it’s hard to think the movie had much of message. But a recurring theme was the media and communicating with the public. Given the focus on media, it’s hard to think the movie’s portrayal of the villain as a deceptive blogger was not given some thought.
But giving the people behind “Contagion” the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume they aren’t actually universally opposed to blogging. If that’s the case, then their portrayal of Krumwiede was gratuitous, and at least by this blogger, unappreciated.
Manila Bulletin: Hollywood takes swipe at bloggers
The Independent Critic: “Contagion” Review
Andrew O’Hehir on Salon: Pick of the week: A pandemic from which even Gwyneth isn’t safe
Chemical & Engineering News: ‘Contagion’ gets science right, at the expense of making a good movie