Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Science & Ideology on the Screen

Soon after presidential candidate Michele Bachman pronounced the new cervical cancer vaccine “dangerous,” public health officials began shaking their collective heads.

One expert from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports the use of the vaccine, told the New York Times, “These things always set you back about three years.”

Pronouncements on screens large and small by recognizable people — whether they are actors, musicians, politicians or the growing ranks of reality TV celebrities — can have an impact on public opinion completely out of proportion with their expertise.

Whether its history or science, that’s one reason people get very nervous about feature films — fictional films — that try to grapple with real-life issues and events. There has been a flurry of news coverage about the accuracy of the hit film Contagion, which provides a gripping illustration of what could happen if a global pandemic occurred.

As usual, Steven Soderbergh managed to attract a bevy of A-list talent — not only Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow but also Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne . . . you couldn’t throw a stick in that movie without hitting a critical darling and a fan favorite. Which makes it even more important that the film tried to get the science right.

Whether we like it or not, audiences are moved by fictional representations and, if the depictions feel realistic and compelling, people often apply what they learn in fictional settings to their real lives.

So, it was heartening to see interviews with experts singing the praises of the scientific research that went into the script. One of the consulting experts on the film published an op-ed in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, where he described how he overcame his wariness about using Hollywood glamour to communicate messages about the dangers of a global pandemic:

Is this fiction? Yes. Is it real? Absolutely. During the SARS outbreak of 2003, the first pandemic of the 21st century, I flew to Beijing at the invitation of the Chinese government to help address the situation there. My memories of deserted streets, food and supply shortages, and political instability are reflected in scenes in “Contagion.” I hope the public and our lawmakers will see the movie as a cautionary tale. Pandemics have happened before. And they will happen again.

And beyond the raw science, popular films like this one can play an outsize role in romanticizing or trashing entire professions. It was a little sad to hear this from a public health official interviewed by the Los Angeles Times: “It’s very nice to see a movie where scientists aren’t the evil ones.”

It’s hard to say where a conservative like Michele Bachman might come down on a movie like Contagion. Although the “big government” health officials are generally depicted heroically, they are by no means perfect, and LA Times columnist Patrick Goldstein goes so far as to say that, “Although it would be a stretch to call Contagion a ‘tea party’ movie, it does reflect much of today’s anti-government and anti-corporate sentiment.”

Just when you thought that Soderbergh could be depended upon to make a movie custom made for a liberal audience who cut their indy movie teeth on Sex, Lies & Videotape, there he goes making a film that — surprise! — can be interpreted in lots of different ways. That’s how representations work: there’s never a one-to-one correspondence between the encoding and decoding of meaning. The process of meaning-making unfolds over time, and it’s always context dependent.

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