Sunday, January 18, 2015


(March 1995, U.S.)

Re-watching Wolfgang Peterson's OUTBREAK for the first time since I initially bought the original "snap case" dvd more than ten years ago has managed to prove three things to me. The first (and most important) is that no matter how many times you've lived through real life events during the course of your existence, watching similar events on the big screen can be twice as frightening. You see, even at the mildly young age of forty-seven, I've lived to see such real life medical outbreaks as they've unfolded in the media. I was there when AIDS was new and meant to scare the living crap out of us. I've seen (not literally, you understand - I mean second-hand, as a media witness) the Sars virus, the Bird Flu, the Ebola crisis and just about any other late 20th Century and 21st Century public scare that would give one pause concerning just how close we get to people and the strict warnings we give our kids. The second is the uncanny issue of timing in my blog posting. I mean, here I am, about to discuss a movie called OUTBREAK during a time when the Ebola crisis is still with us and there's just about every strain of flu virus on the war path right now even when we're being told that this year's flu shots are likely only about twenty-three percent effective. Is that just twisted irony and coincidence or am I just some sort of sick, morbid son-of-a-bitch?? The third (and least important) is that a high-intensity thriller released in the spring can be just as effective as your typical summer blockbuster.

For this film, like in so many real life cases, the deadly virus known as Motaba, a fictitious illness with the same flu-like symptoms of the present-day Ebola, originates in Africa and somehow, through unknowing victims traveling by ship and by plane, manages to find its way to the United States and a small California town called Cedar Creek. The host for this virus is an adorable little monkey (the same monkey, it turns out, that belonged to Ross Geller in the first season of FRIENDS) that not only carries the deadly disease, but also the antibodies that can make a cure possible. All the while, while the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the Army Medical teams headed by divorced couple Sam Daniels (played by Dustin Hoffman) and Roberta Keough (played by Rene Russo) are scrambling to figure out what's the hell is going on and to locate the host, people are dying faster than they can be bagged and burned! This is where fiction based on fact can be truly frightening, even if you've heard about real-life cases on TV. You know it's fake on screen, but if it's done effectively enough, it turns your stomach and the ongoing question of "What if?" in life becomes all the more clear. Remember also, that OUTBREAK is a thriller with its "bad guys" to hate; this case, being the Army generals (played by Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman) who run the show and are secretly withholding the truth and the cure in order to maintain the virus as a viable biological weapon against unknown enemies who would seek to attack our country with their own germ warfare. Is that a noble cause in that name of national security or just the typical evil corruption that repeatedly lies at the heart of our American military and government (you decide!)? Still, in the end, it's the President of the United States (Bill Clinton himself, we presume, because it's his actual picture we see on the wall during a moment of the film - look closely) that gives the final authorization to literally wipe out the town of Cedar Creek with a self-imploding bomb in order to contain the virus and keep it from spreading to the rest of the country and the rest of the world. Not to worry! The good doctors, our heroes of this film, will successfully save the day and the town by getting all the answers and stopping the bomb just in the nick-of-time. Yes, it's all wonderful cinematic cliché as thrillers go, but dammit, it works, and if it works, you don't complain. You just sit back and enjoy the thrills of a deadly virus (oh man, that sounds sick, doesn't it!)!

Now that I think about it, there is a fourth thing that watching OUTBREAK has managed to prove to me, and it's this - there's nothing on screen that can't seem even more thrilling if you have the right actor to back it up. What do I mean by that? Those of us who know Dustin Hoffman best will associate him first with some of his best work that include THE GRADUATE (1967), ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and MARATHON MAN (1976), KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), TOOTSIE (1982) and RAIN MAN (1988). What I'm saying is that as good as OUTBREAK is, it's likely not what he'll be best remembered for. However, because he's such a wonderful actor, to watch him in this film constantly running around, yelling, confronting people with the harsh truth and generally looking very tense and scared, you're willing to believe any and all levels of this screen medical crisis with a great degreee of dread and fear. That, I suppose, is what effective (I've used that word a lot today, haven't I!) acting is all about.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Chief of Staff: "This is the Constitution of the United States. I've read it cover to cover. I don't find anything in it about vaporizing twenty-six hundred American citizens. But it does say, several times, that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process. So, a couple of things before Clean Sweep is even considered. One: unanimous, unwavering support for the president on this. And I mean, public. You're going to stand there shoulder to shoulder with him. He goes down, you go down. And the second thing is, I want an army of experts citing hundreds and thousands of lab experiments telling any idiot with a camera that there was no other way! Got that? Hmm? No member of this government is going to go sneaking off to the Washington Post, telling them how they were the "sole voice of opposition"! If there is a voice of opposition out there, I want him in here, now!"

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