In the fifties and sixties, the biggest threat to the existence of man on this planet was that a nuclear holocaust could happen at any minute. I'm not sure that fear has ever left us. After all, when you have Dictators such as Putin and Kim Jong Un, and we elect total loons like Donald Trumpenstein, every day is anything can happen day.
We're also smart enough to know now that if the bomb is going to drop, all one can do is put their head between their legs and kiss their ass goodbye. You'll be darn lucky if you have time to do that. One second, you're here; the next second, you're vaporized.
All it takes is one button press to blow the world all to shit. As willing as it always is, Hollywood picked up on that theme with films such as Fail-Safe, The Bedford Incident, Dr. Strangelove, and On The Beach.
And let's not forget the radiation side effects left over from mega-bomb testing that you won't find in any book or college thesis. If the bomb itself didn't get us, Film Writers and Producers wanted us to believe that some strange monstrous creature blown up to gigantic size from the effects of nuclear radiation would have us all for lunch.
Eventually, Hollywood's preoccupation with the threat of Earth becoming a nuclear wasteland subsided. Once you’ve blown the planet all to hell in a movie like The Day After, there’s not much left to tell.
They seemed to become more preoccupied with more mundane matters such as wiping us out via natural disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes, meteors and comets spinning around in the far reaches of space intent on making Earth their target, or aliens from another world coming down and feasting instead of Godzilla chowing down on sushi.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Another genuine threat loomed on the horizon, made more imperative by recent current events. We may have had too much of a good thing because of our natural tendency to pop an antibiotic down our throats at the first sign of a cough or sneeze. Someday, there may be a virus that will be immune to all popped pills and capsules, and when that happens, it will be adios to one and all.
The virus could be manufactured as it was in Stephen King's The Stand or come from a monkey living it up in sunny California despite the absence of a passport, visa, or green card. And that is the premise behind Outbreak, another Hollywood concoction that lets us see our demise in real time before we actually experience the thrill firsthand.
In 1967, a new virus spread through the Motaba River Valley region of Zaire, wiping out most of the inhabitants of a Mercenary Camp who came in contact with it. In two days, it has claimed 48 victims. We witness the horrific effects of the disease when two U.S. Army soldiers are flown in by helicopter in quarantine suits to survey the damage and to see if the virus is contained and is no longer spreading.
After gathering blood samples, telling a doctor they'll send supplies in as soon as possible, and reassuring one man that he will be fine, they depart. Shortly after that, they show their genuine humanitarianism by ordering the place to be bombed all to shit.
And yes, all you morbid violence freaks out there do get to see the bomb drop with men waving at it as if it's a big barrel of Big Macs just before they're disintegrated into gooey microscopic particles of skin and bone matter. But think of the bright side. It did wipe out their disease and kept them from starving to death.
Fast forward about 27 years to the present day at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID for all you abbreviation fanatics) in Ft. Detrick, Maryland, where Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his co-worker Major Casey Shuler (Kevin Spacey) research and study viruses both old and new in an attempt to keep them from spreading across the planet.
Daniels's ex-wife Roberta (Rene Russo), now works at the Center for Disease Control (that's CDC for all you abbreviation freaks), tracking the outbreak of diseases across the U.S. so they can be contained. She was working with Daniels and Shuler, but for obvious reasons, she moves on to greener pastures. Seems she wants to be as far away from ex-hubby Sam as possible while still getting what amounts to a promotion.
I don't know why they're divorced, but it must have been awful because, in the early part of the film, she seems really pissed off at Sam whenever he shows up. The reasons for the break up don't really matter. Their split is merely a plot device to add another dimension to their characters. And it's one plot device that actually works well.
We find all of this out because Sam is ordered by the voice of Morgan Freeman to head to Zaire because there's a level four alert in place. At the USAMRIID, Sam works at Level IV, which deals with extreme biohazards, maximum security, and Infectious agents: Ebola, Lassa, and Hantaviruses. Highly Virulent, no known cures or vaccines. So we can assume that any outbreak Sam is called in to investigate can be some pretty scary shit.
(Clyde note: In 1999, the World Health Organization (WHO for all you abbreviation nitpickers) began its level alert system. Level 4 is listed as containment of the new virus in a limited area or delay of its spread." Still, it is also acknowledged that the virus is contagious among humans. A Level 5 alert signals that the pandemic has begun. But these standards weren't issued until four years after the release of Outbreak.)
More importantly, we now know that Morgan Freeman's voice belongs to Sam's superior officer, and his name is Billy. The following day when we see his gazillion stripes, medals, and stars, we discover that Billy is one hot-shot army guy who officially goes by the name of Brigadier General Billy Ford (No relation to Gerald or Henry Ford). They are friendly enough, almost like old-school buddies. But looks can be deceiving.
Along on this mission with Sam is Casey Shuler and wet behind-the-ears tissue sample guy Major Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.) The three are dumped into an African village eerily similar to the one we saw at the film's beginning, with the now familiar bloated and bleeding corpses included.
There is one significant difference. This time the virus "seems" to be contained, which means no fireball shooting like a cannonball from out of the sky, bright as a rose, gleaming its eye, exploding, and blowing villagers to kingdom come and beyond. The reason the virus is contained? Everybody who had it is already dead or near death. It is a mess that causes Major Salt to make a huge mistake, but since the virus is not airborne (yet), it's no harm, no foul.
After collecting some samples, Sam, Casey, and Major Salt returned home to study the virus. But as Sam says, a brand new virus is something you may only see once in a lifetime. For all you Covid people, we've now seen one.
Casey Schuler: I hate this bug.
Colonel Sam Daniels: Oh, come on, Casey. You have to admire its simplicity. It's one billionth our size and it's beating us.
Casey Schuler: So, what do you want to do, take it to dinner?
Colonel Sam Daniels: No.
Casey Schuler: What, then?
Colonel Sam Daniels: Kill it.
When Sam reported that the Motaba virus "seemed" contained, it's with good reason that he wasn't any more definite. He wants officials to issue an alert to be on the safe side in case he's wrong. Just because it was contained in the Motaba village does not mean the virus didn't escape somewhere, someway, or somehow.
Like in a Capuchin Monkey in Zaire on vacation from South America. And then perhaps that disease-carrying little bastard is netted and carried off to be used for lab experiments in the U.S.
Once in California, what if the animal were carted away by Jimbo McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) to be sold in a pet shop. And then, let's suppose Jimbo gets covered in monkey spit. The pet shop owner he's trying to sell the animal to gets scratched by one really pissed-off miniature ape when he decides not to buy the animal. And finally, Jimbo McDreamy, unable to sell the little fellow, lets it loose in the California wilderness just before catching a flight to Boston to lay a big old wet smooch on his girlfriend. Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.
Meanwhile, back at the USAMRIID ranch, we finally learn the identity of Donald Sutherland's voice. He is Major General Donald McClintock and outranks everybody except maybe God, The President, and The Pope. This guy is such an asshole, though. He probably thinks he's in charge of them too.
Since the 1960's when McClintock ordered the wipeout of the village in Zaire, turning it into the world's most giant wienie roast ever, the Major General and Billy have been doing some things that weren't entirely on the up and up. And let's not forget the fact that genocide, even on a small scale, isn't part of any Treaty I've ever heard of.
These guys have been secretly experimenting with the original Motaba, hoping to develop a new biological weapon. And along the way, they created a serum that they've secretly kept in a vault for thirty years as if it were the body of Ted Williams which can prevent the spread of the little booger. And as it turns out, the virus is the same as the strain Sam brought back from Africa.
Pretty soon, the shit hits the fan. The disease spreads from one carrier to the next. Jimbo gives it to his girlfriend, a lab assistant carelessly checking blood samples, breaks a vial of blood, then passes the disease on to patrons of a movie theater in the town of Cedar Creek. The President must decide whether to eliminate the village from the California landscape, and as Porky Pig might say, "bida bida bida bida bida, that's all folks."
Billy and his buddy, General McClintock, are more interested in protecting their own asses (think DeSantis/Trump and a slew of other Republicans and crackpots) than how many people will die in Cedar Creek. McClintock orders Billy to send Sam, his best pandemic specialist, off to take care of a situation already under control. To keep Sam out of Cedar Creek because if anyone could figure out what they had been up to for thirty years, Sam could. But Sam has this thing about following orders when there is obviously some underlying motive to keep him in the dark.
If you're sure that the good friendly folks of Cedar Creek will be spared in the end, then you need to have a refresher course in 60's doomsday films like this one. When push comes to shove, President, whomever it may be, won't want that stuff creeping across the White House lawn to nail his ass. Especially when you have McClintock convincing you that the only way out is to blow Cedar Creek all to hell, the sick along with the ones not yet ill. What? You think the Constitution is going to protect you when there’s politicians and their hand-picked Corporate Supreme Court Justices out there shitting on it day after day?
All the characters in Outbreak are exceptionally well written, especially for a film that is simply another disaster movie at its heart. Dustin Hoffman is quite surprising in a role entirely different from anything else he has done. He is intense, rebellious, knowledgeable, and, when necessary, a decent action hero. However, he'll never be compared to Harrison Ford, who was initially planned for the role. But I don't see Ford as the scientific type, so it balances out. Sammy is everything we expect our hero to be, except that he should have been nicer to his ex-wife Robbie.
Rene Russo, as his ex, is good too. She is more sensible and down to Earth than Hoffman, yet not so much so that she would let such a dangerous threat as this virus fall entirely under the radar. When Sam pleas with her to ask for an alert to be called, she hesitates but does it anyway, knowing that while her ex might be an asshole when it comes to relationships, he's usually right on the money when it comes to interacting with microscopic particles.
Kevin Spacey isn't given much to do initially, but this is early in his career, and he is the third banana. But he has a heartbreaking scene with Russo late in the game in Cedar Creek. One thing, though, and it really annoyed me throughout the film. Spacey has the weirdest crappiest hair coloring and haircut I've ever seen in a movie. So throw a few raspberries to the hairstylist. As for his career 28 years later, Spacey seems to have permanently fucked up that with his perverted tendency to sexually assault people.
In fact, it's almost as if he's auditioning for the part of Rod Tidwell. Too bad his film selection since winning that statue has pretty much sucked, not to mention that he took a page out of the Kevin Spacey handbook of sexual assault. Maybe these guys should have gotten together and blamed the after-effects of Motaba.
Donald Sutherland, whom Writer, director, and producer Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers), who worked with Sutherland on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie, once referred to Donald Sutherland as being a dick. A nice anecdote from Whedon, a guy who turned out to be an obnoxious, sexist dick himself.
But one thing is sure, Sutherland can play a dick better than anybody. For reference, see his villainy in The Hunger Games Trilogy.
Morgan Freeman has the more difficult task. He has to play a dick with a conscience who knows he's doing some messed up shit but has to follow orders because Sutherland has more stripes on his sleeves. As to whether or not Billy can redeem himself in the end, that remains to be seen. Billy's actions could be why he got sent to Shawshank for an extended stay.
Many aspects of Outbreak are genuinely frightening. The film opens with one of the most devastating scenes I've ever witnessed, alerting us to the dangers we are about to face. We know beforehand what the result will be when the monkey scratches the pet store owner, and we immediately begin to cringe at the thought, just as we do when the monkey is set free. Other terrifying scenes deal with how the virus rapidly spreads and begins to infect the population. Wolfgang Petersen's adept direction never lets the film linger, keeping things moving along at a rapid pace while at the same time not forgetting to focus on his actors whenever possible. It's much better than Poseidon, where he seemed to be going through the motions.
One of the more remarkable scenes is the one in the Cedar Creek theater, which shows the virus spreading from one victim to the next. Later, when Sam tries to figure out how the virus has spread beyond the quarantined hospital rooms, he looks up at the vent. As the camera takes us through the duct into the other hospital room, Sam realizes the virus has mutated, can now travel through the air, and that Billy's super secret vaccine isn't going to cure that shit now.
Nothing is spared from us as we see the disease's devastating effects on those who become infected. It is all these things that make Outbreak such a good film, much of which the credit for can go not only to Peterson but to Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and the many makeup artists and special effects wizards who worked on the film, with an excellent cast that took the subject matter seriously instead of just collecting a paycheck.
Outbreak is an excellent scary what would happen if... film made more terrifying because everything that occurs is a real threat.
After Covid, it is now inevitable. Making matters worse, we now have a significant segment of anti-vax nut cases in this country led by jackasses like Trump Monster, and total nutcases like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Lauren Bozo Boebert, and Trailer Trash Marjorie Taylor Greene would help to do us in. Kennedy Jr.'s father is rolling over in his grave at his son's bullshit.
Those thoughts alone should be enough to keep you glued to your seat. And if a film such as Outbreak can keep us edgy and tense while reminding us that it may be fiction, but it's also a probable fact, then I have no choice but to give it a grade of A.