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Film Review: Outbreak

Outbreak (1995; Directed by Wolfgang Petersen)

If Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a film that feels like an exaggerated encapsulation of the fear and anxiety of a viral pandemic like the COVID-19 one sending the globe into paroxysms at the moment, then Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak is… well… it’s a movie about a virus. That much is undeniable. But Outbreak is predictably sensationalist mid-’90s Hollywood shlock where the later Contagion is an exacting short-on-breath thriller. In amping up the drama in every moment to over-the-top extremes, Outbreak makes for an epidemiological thriller that is more laughable than frightening, more incredible than indelible.

Outbreak was helmed by German director Wolfgang Petersen, who made the tense and claustrophobic submarine thriller Das Boot in his home country, followed it with the beloved (or at least generally well-regarded) children’s yarn The Neverending Story in America, and parlayed their successes into multiple big-budget studio productions that just never came close to being any good again (with all due apologies to the legions of sincere dads out there who get alternately pumped and weepy at Air Force One or The Perfect Storm). Outbreak is situated smack dab in the middle of his Hollywood career and reflects the smothering militarism that marks many of his blockbuster productions (and many Hollywood blockbusters period, to be fair, with often unsettling implications). There’s a whole mess of army in this movie about a devastatingly deadly viral epidemic that bursts Ebola-like out of darkest central Africa (the Congo to be specific, then known as Zaire) and threatens America, namely a fictional town in California.

Dustin Hoffman is Sam Daniels (is this weird casting? I kept thinking so, but had trouble pinpointing a compelling argument as to why), an army doctor for USAMRIID, the US Army’s infectious disease research unit. He gets a glimpse of the Motaba virus’ terrible impact in a decimated Zairean village, and repeatedly disobeys orders from his superior officer Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) not to intervene in the developing Stateside viral crisis, on the insistence of Major General McClintock (Donald Sutherland). McClintock is trying to suppress news of the epidemic because – twist! – the U.S. Army developed the virus 30 years before as a biological weapon and they don’t want the bad press of exposure. Rene Russo is Dr. Robby Keough, a CDC epidemiologist and Sam’s ex-wife and ex-coworker who is also on the scene of the outbreak, along with Sam’s USAMRIID colleagues played by Kevin Spacey (who gives a lamely quippy performance unworthy of the actor who also appeared so transcendently in Seven and The Usual Suspects in the same calendar year as this movie, and who we now know really sucks a lot) and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (a by-the-book rookie who barks out every line as if replying to a drill sergeant). In addition to studying and seeking to treat and cure the Motaba virus ahead of the imminent wipeout bombing of the whole infected town on McClintock’s orders, this team is also tracking the viral host, an adorable Capuchin monkey (probably the same one who played Ross Geller’s monkey on Friends, which is a Spacey-like concentration of big-time acting credits) illegally brought into the States and released into the woods by a leather-jacketed dirtbag named – no fooling – Jimbo Scott (a young and bizarrely-cast Patrick Dempsey).

You might be surprised to learn that Sam’s efforts to find the host and use it to whip up an antiserum to cure the virus (which he manages to accomplish in the space of an afternoon, by all appearances) involve him and Gooding, Jr.’s Major Salt stealing an army helicopter not once but twice, the first usage of the chopper developing into an elaborate helicopter chase (featuring some admittedly impressive stunt flying) with McClintock’s two birds. It also concludes with Sam starting a forest fire to distract their pursuers and get away, which seems somewhat irresponsible of him, but I digress. But Outbreak doesn’t stop to think about such things, nor does it get at all thoughtful about government abuses of power at the sequence of California townsfolk running the military quarantine line in pickup trucks, only to get totally lit up and brutally murdered by a helicopter gunship (the yokels did open fire first, but anti-government militias would see it as a prime call to arms nonetheless).

Outbreak doesn’t stop for anything. Petersen fills his movie with scenes of rumbling military vehicles, cacophonous hospital pandemonium, spurting blood, and violent fevered seizures in a theatre lobby on spilled popcorn. The big marching brass score from James Newton Howard bombasts away at every dramatic juncture, in collaboration with the unsubtle cymbal crashes of the sound design. Rita Kempley’s contemporary review of the film for The Washington Post called attention to Petersen’s “rabid pacing”, and her observation is aptly worded; Outbreak is a movie constantly breaking out in fever sweats, driven into a flopping frenzy by the earth-shaking dramatic momentum of its proceedings.

For a movie about a hyper-dramatic viral epidemic, Petersen’s drumbeat of portentous consequence may strike one as appropriate. But as our own current pandemic experience has shown us (and as Contagion, for all of its own dramatic developments, appreciated), it’s the dull ache of the anxious mundane and the irritating, psychologically wearing disruption of routine social operations that characterize life under viral quarantine as much as a momentous drama of life and death (though the latter is a certain reality for an unfortunate many as well). We ought not to necessarily expect a movie with a title of the furious erupting motion of Outbreak to be a sober reflection on the existential struggles of the viral apocalypse. Outbreak has neither the time nor the inclination to be that movie, and you can’t blame it. Look at that feature movie poster in its starkly serious unexpected hilarity, with the three stars staring down the monkey. How could the movie that follows that be anything but cornball in the extreme?

If anything, though, Outbreak diminishes the pandemic threat that it so breathlessly trumpets. Motaba spreads and mutates of its own accord as lethal viruses do, but at its core it’s a creation of the U.S. military-industrial complex as a weapon, and the shoot-first, ask-questions-later military in this movie is a far greater and more lethal force than any germ. Outbreak is militaristic as hell, but to Petersen’s mild credit that militarism is hardly a benevolent force for freedom, as the propaganda line goes. Indeed, the Army has got the blood of many American citizens on its hands (to say nothing of the Africans it kills as well, which the movie barely does), and through Sutherland’s no-prisoners McClintock is so stubborn in its dogged insistence on its own righteousness that it must be laboriously forced not to bomb a couple thousand Americans to kingdom come.

Outbreak is too foaming-at-the-mouth frantic to expand its need for a non-microscopic villain to any sort of actual critique of American imperialism, and McClintock’s comeuppance is filtered through a deep-subplot character arc of his relentlessly demeaned and cucked subordinate Briggs (Dale Dye) getting the momentary satisfaction of arresting his jerk of a boss. He’s a bad apple, not a representative of deeper and more insidious imperialistic sociopathy in the military establishment. Outbreak is thus a military movie about how the military is bad, and a viral disaster movie in which the virus is man-made. It’s more interested in its preposterous conceits than in sounding any sort of warning about the spread of disease. It’s doing its job and working furiously to pummel its audience with (frankly cheap) diversion, but beyond that? Don’t expect much.

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