Blockbuster movies aren’t usually noted for their scientific accuracy and education potential.  But since its release last week, Steven Soderburgh’s Contagion seems to be challenging the assumption that Hollywood can’t do science.

The other day I posted a piece about how director Steven Soderburgh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns’ attention to detail and plausibility left me with a sense of optimism after watching the movie, despite its disturbing theme.  This was due in large part to the involvement of three science experts – Ian Lipkin (Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columblia University), Laurie Garrett (senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Larry Brilliant (President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund).

Larry Brilliant is well known for his work on eradicating the smallpox virus.  He was also a past Executive Director of the philanthropic arm of Google, and is currently President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to chat with him on the phone about the movie, his involvement, and his thoughts on its importance.

What was quickly apparent in our conversation is that the idea of using film as a medium to help people better understand the threats epidemics and pandemics present is one that Brilliant has long been interested in.  While Executive Director of, he supported production of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Final Inch – a film about the historic global effort to eradicate polio. Given the success of the documentary in bringing a global issue (and public health success story) to the attention of millions of people, Larry was interested in how the medium of film could be further used – in particular to alert people to the plausible threat presented by pandemics, and the measures that are necessary to curtail their global impact.

And in Steven Soderburgh and Scott Z Burns, he found the ideal partners.

Well before he became President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, Brilliant was interested in exploring how humanity can prepare for low probability high impact events like pandemics.  As he explained, he is particularly concerned over how we go about developing expertise and resources to tackle such events, especially where short term and local thinking does little to prepare society for eventualities that demand a globally coordinated and informed response. Brilliant emphasized that devolving responsibility to local communities and private organizations just doesn’t work here – you need the resources and reach of national and international government organizations, together with long term investment in expertise and people, in order to respond rapidly and globally to a fast-moving viral infection.

But how do you get that message across – especially at a time when long term strategic measures against catastrophic risks are being ditched in favor of short term economic and political gains?

Movies, according to Brilliant, are part of the toolbox for raising awareness and helping people understand how some challenges are just too big to be privatized. Unfortunately, films that build on fantasy rather than plausibility have led to the medium being marginalized as a vehicle for science-based communication and education.  But in the case of Contagion, Larry felt that with the combination of a “brilliant” director and screenwriter, together with a cast of dedicated and engaged actors (on whom Larry lavishes praise and admiration – especially for Matt Damon and Kate Winslet), the scene was set for a movie which was was emotionally engaging yet grounded in plausible reality.

The scenario developed within the movie is clearly fictional – it hasn’t happened yet.  But as Larry noted, because of the science that went into the movie, what emerges is a series of events that are not beyond the realms of possibility – and in fact, given enough time, are highly probable. As fellow consultant Laurie Garrett wrote the other day on the CNN website,

‘Contagion’ is part reality, part fantasy, totally possible

When asked whether he was pleased with the results, Brilliant gave an unqualified and very enthusiastic affirmative.  As well as high praise for the cast and production team, he was pleased with the way that the response to the pandemic was portrayed in the movie.  As he pointed out, the White House and UN are notable by their absence.  Rather, the heroes – the people who identify, track and eventually tackle the pandemic – are government-employed public health professionals.  To him, this is a highly realistic portrayal of how a pandemic is likely to play out, and a stark warning against cutting investment in public health because of short term thinking and a potentially catastrophic lack of understanding.

At a time when public health agencies in the US are facing significant cuts, this was a key message for Brilliant. Contagion is plausible reality wrapped up in a strong narrative – to Brilliant and others, it’s not a case of if such a pandemic will occur, but when.  And what Burns and Soderburgh have done is provide us with glimpse of our best hope for surviving this eventuality – assuming we haven’t abandoned our trained and prepared public health professionals in the meantime because we didn’t have the intelligence and foresight to recognize their importance.

This is a key message that Brilliant hopes will come through loud and clear as people watch and talk about the movie.  And it’s one that he hopes will have sticking power – with the movie stimulating conversations and action for many years to come.

Andrew Maynard