"The single biggest threat to man's continued dominance on the planet is the virus"
Late Dr. Joshua Lederberg, Nobel Laureate and renowned molecular biologist.
To review a film about pandemic in the times when a ‘real’ pandemic hits humanity and threatens its very existence is quite an ask. But it doesn’t hurt to look at the positivity of the author/director/actor where they look out for a solution to a similar problem. And that too in 1995. Ironically , this is also the 25th Year anniversary since the release of “Outbreak”.
“Outbreak” was a top notch medical thriller made in 1995. It deployed the most premium talent of its time. It was directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Troy, Das Boot, Air Force One, The Perfect Storm). It starred legendary actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Rene Russo and Cuba Gooding Jr. It is based on the bestselling book , “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston and has shades from Robin Cook’s “Outbreak”. The film is now available on YouTube Movies menu and Google Play movies app for rent/purchase in India.
WHAT IS “OUTBREAK” ABOUT?
The film talks of a team of medical researchers tracking the origin of the Motaba virus in the small town of Cedar Creek in California. The virus originates in a military camp in Zaire in Africa and gets transported on a chimpanzee to the USA. As it turns out the animal is the ‘host’ and spreads the infection very fast. In order to tackle the situation, the US Administration uses the USAMRIID which is a virology institute operating out of the US Army. It is led by Col. Sam Daniels (Hoffman) and his team includes the entire cast including Dr Roberta (Rene Russo) and others. As they investigate the matter to hunt the host animal, they are confronted with the pecking order of General McClintock (Donald Sutherland) and General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman). At the end the team is able to find the antidote in time.
HOW IS “OUTBREAK”RELEVANT TODAY IN THE COVID-19 WORLD?
The Covid-19 challenge is very different from what both “Outbreak” and “Contagion” (which is more accurate to the geography of the virus origin and the global scale of its spread) offers. The mortality rate is far much higher in these films. Covid-19 is at an average a very low in mortality rate at about 3.5%. But the most important similarity between “Outbreak” and today’s crisis is the investigative zeal of the medical practitioners and their relentless pursuit to find the ‘host’ animal in time. In the Covid-19 crisis, there is no host or patient zero as the virus has spread in over 100 countries and has infected over 2 Million people. But “contact tracing”, “isolation”, “quarantine” are seen first-hand in outbreak. There are a few scenes in which victims spread virus in the broad daylight. The film also takes an in depth look at the emotional catharsis of Sam Daniels as he receives one blow after the other while doing his research. One can see when the doctors themselves get infected while treating other patients. The decision-making hierarchy of the US Army and the politics it brings with itself is also quite fascinating. At one moment, the military is about to execute a “clean sweep” of the infected area by bombing it. But the viewer can get first hand idea when “Outbreak” takes you in the medical wards with the patients of how challenging it is to manage the sick in the times of a pandemic.
How is “Outbreak” different from “Contagion”?
Both “Contagion” and “Outbreak” were large budget films made in 1995 and 2011. They both had top rate Directors and equally good cast. Its very difficult to compare these two films. But purely from the perspective of the story, “Outbreak” looks at a local problem in a small town in a US state. “Contagion” looks at a global spread of a global pandemic. Both films have a virus at the center of the spread of the disease but the stakes are much higher in “Contagion”. From the characters perspective as well, “Outbreak” seems more like a personal battle of one team of people but “Contagion” doesn’t have one single hero. “Outbreak” can be relevant today to countries where the communications are not that robust. It can well be argued that “Outbreak” was made in the pre-smartphone and 4G era while “Contagion” had a globally connected world in place.
SOURCE MATERIAL FOR “OUTBREAK”
The fictional “Motaba” Virus has been modeled on the “Ebola” virus outbreak which too was contained. It had originated in Zaire in Africa. “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston is the source for the story of “Outbreak”. Robin Cook who is arguably the best known medical thriller writer in history has also written a book called “Outbreak” although it has not got any legal connection with the movie. But for many screenplay writers and Directors, Cook has created the template for medical thrillers for generations. His works have been made into big films like “Coma” and “Virus”. Cook has written over 25 books which are largely medical thrillers. Cook himself is a renowned physician which kind of plays into his writing and character development.
Dustin Hoffman as Sam Daniels does a good job of playing the affable and righteous doctor in the military. Rene Russo plays a powerful role as Daniels’ ex-wife. Her professional run-ins with Hoffman are at the heart of the emotional narrative of the film. Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman, Donald Sutherland and Cuba Gooding Jr have given effective performances. Director Wolfgang Petersen has made a 120 min plus movie which engages you on all levels.
I would give “Outbreak” 7 out of 10 for being the first mover in medical thrillers by making a big budget pandemic movie in 1995 and a storyline which is still relevant in the Covid-19 world!