Friday, September 23, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Outbreak (1995)


Outbreak (1995)
Dustin Hoffman
Rene Russo
Kevin Spacey
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Morgan Freeman
Donald Sutherland
Patrick Dempsey

Directed by
Wolfgang Petersen

In the fifties and sixties, the biggest threat to the existence of man on this planet seemed to be the fact that a nuclear holocaust could happen at any minute. I’m not sure that fear has ever left us, it’s just that we’re not nearly preoccupied with it these days since the fall of the Soviet Union.  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.   Hell, you’ll be darn lucky if you have time to do even that. One second you’re here, the next second you’re vaporized.

Once we knew the Commies had the bomb also and either country might blow the world all to shit, Hollywood, being as obliging as it always is, picked up on that theme with such films as Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, Five, 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 and 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 very real threat loomed on the horizon. Because of our natural tendency to pop an antibiotic down our throats at the first sign of a cough or sneeze, it seems we may have had too much of a good thing. 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 in fact be man made as it was in Stephen King’s The Stand or it could 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 first hand.

In 1967, there is an outbreak of a new virus that spreads through the Motaba River Valley region of Zaire wiping out most of the inhabitants of a Mercenary Camp who come 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 disease is contained and is no longer spreading. 

After gathering some blood samples, telling a doctor they’ll send supplies in as soon as possible, and reassuring one man that he’s going to be fine, they depart.  Soon thereafter they show their real 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 Mac’s 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. 

You won’t have to hire a voice analyst to know that the voices of the two men in the quarantine suits did in fact belong to  Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland.  But who are these masked men? 

Fast forward about 27 years to the present day at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (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 ex-wife Roberta, (Rene Russo), 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 that they can be contained.  She once worked with Daniels and Shuler as well but for obvious reasons, no longer does.

I don’t know why they’re divorced, but it must have been something really bad because in the early part of the film she seems really really pissed off at Sam whenever he shows up.  The reasons of 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 (again with the voice) 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, Infectious agents: Ebola, Lassa, Hanta viruses.  Highly Virulent, no known cures or vaccines. So we can assume that any outbreak Sam is called into investigate, can be some pretty scary shit.

(Clyde note:  In 1999 the World Health Organization (WHO for all you abbreviation nitpickers out there) began it’s own level alert system.  Level 4 is listed as containment of the new virus in a limited area or delay of its spread” but it is also an acknowledgement that the virus is contagious between 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 that his name is Billy.  We know that because Sam addresses him as such on the phone, and the next morning 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 seem to be friendly enough, almost like old school buddies.  But looks can be deceiving.

Colonel Sam Daniels: Sir, what did I ever do to make your life miserable?
General Billy Ford: You got up this morning, didn't you?

Along on this mission with Sam is Casey Shuler, and wet behind the ears tissue sample guy Major Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.)  The three of them are dumped into an African village eerily similar to the one we saw at the beginning of the film with the now familiar bloated and bleeding corpses included.

There is one major 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 it’s eye, exploding, and blowing villagers to kingdom come and beyond. 

After collecting some samples Sam, Casey, and Major Salt return home to study the virus.  But as Sam says, a brand new virus is something you may only see once in a lifetime.

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 back that the Motaba virus “seemed” contained, it’s with good reason that he wasn't any more definite than that.  He wants officials to issue an alert just 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 maybe in a Capuchin Monkey in Zaire that is there 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. And 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 just 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 biggest 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 using the original Motaba for experimentation, hoping to develop a new biological weapon.  And along the way they  developed 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 exact same one as the strain brought back from Africa by Sam.

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 checking blood samples carelessly 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 town from the California landscape, and as Porky Pig might say, “bida bida bida bida bida That’s all folks.” 

And 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 dooms day 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.


All the characters in Outbreak are exceptionally well written, especially for a film that is at it’s heart simply another disaster movie. Dustin Hoffman is quite surprising in a role that is completely different from anything else he has done. He is intense, rebellious, highly intelligent, and when necessary, a decent action hero although he’ll never be compared to Harrison Ford who was originally planned for the role. But I don’t see Ford as the scientific type either so it balances out.  Sammy is all things we expect our hero to be, with the exception 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 completely 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 a lot to do initially, but this is early in his career and he is the second 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 hair stylist.

Cuba Gooding Jr. is every bit as good in this film as he would be a year later in Jerry Maguire for which he won an Oscar.  In fact, it’s almost as if he’s auditioning for the part of Rod Tidwell here.  Too bad his film selection since winning that statue has pretty much sucked. 

Donald Sutherland, whom Writer, director, and producer Joss Whedon (he of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the WGTVSE) who worked with Sutherland the Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie, once referred to Donald Sutherland  as being a dick.  If that’s the case, than Sutherland is in character here.  He plays a dick and Sutherland can play a dick better than anybody. 

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.

Many aspects of Outbreak are truly 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 when the monkey scratches the pet store owner what the result will be and we immediately begin to cringe from the thought, just as we do when the monkey is set free. There are other terrifying scenes that deal with how the virus rapidly spreads and begins to infect the population.  Wolfgang Petersen’s adept direction never let’s 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 his later effort Poseidon where he just seemed to be going through the motions.

One of the more remarkable  scenes is the one that takes place 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 had spread beyond the quarantined hospital rooms, he looks up at the vent, and as the camera takes us through the duct into the other hospital room, Sam realizes the virus has mutated and can now travel through the air.

Nothing is spared from us as we see the devastating effects the disease has 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 make up 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 a good scary what would happen if... film, made more terrifying by the fact that everything that occurs is a very real threat, that may or may not be inevitable.  That 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 possible fact, then I have no choice but to give it a grade of A-. 

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