Tuesday, March 10, 2015

'Outbreak' Should Have Been Better

Sam (Dustin Hoffman): Once in your life, take a chance!

Robby (Rene Russo): You know what, Sam? I did. I married you.

It occurred to me that last fall, when the Ebola virus was making news in the United States, would have been an appropriate time for a TV network to show "Outbreak," a movie that premiered 20 years ago today about a similar but fictional disease and the effort to prevent its spread in a fictional California town.

But Ebola's progression is positively pedestrian by comparison. This virus was some kind of supervirus, turning a human to jelly within 24 hours of exposure.

Of course, the story fueled the fire of conspiracy theories, too, since it turned out that the federal government had been aware of the disease, which had first surfaced nearly 30 years earlier, had destroyed the village where it appeared to contain it and had kept samples of the virus in storage, all in an attempt to control access to the virus, making it a valuable biological weapon, especially since the government intended to develop a serum.

It was effective, too. When I saw the movie, I know I left the theater wondering how well equipped the government really was to respond to an unexpected outbreak of a deadly disease. Others must have felt the same way — and whether there might be some rogue element in the government that was capable of causing a widespread epidemic.

(Come to think of it, I thought of this movie a few years later when people were dying of anthrax exposure.)

The movie had a talented cast. It starred Dustin Hoffman as a virologist who was sent to investigate when this fictional disease resurfaced. His crew was played by Kevin Spacey (a few years before winning Best Actor for "American Beauty") and Cuba Gooding Jr. (a year before winning Best Supporting Actor for "Jerry Maguire"). The Army officers who had gathered the virus samples and destroyed the village nearly three decades earlier were played by Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman. Hoffman's ex–wife, also an expert in battling deadly diseases, was played by Rene Russo.

The story of the outbreak of the disease and the frantic effort to prevent its spread was "one of the great scare stories of our time," Ebert wrote.

I think the scare story was helped considerably by the way the movie followed the spread of the disease. It's like what Alfred Hitchcock said about the difference between a horror movie and a suspense movie. In a horror movie, you see a bomb explode. You see a lot of carnage. You may even see bodies strewn about, some in bloody messes. In a suspense movie, you see the bomb that no one else sees. Perhaps it has a timing device, and you see it. It tells you there isn't much time. Everyone else goes about his or her daily routine, unaware of what is about to happen.

In "Outbreak," an infected smuggler, sweating and clearly ill, gets off an airplane and is greeted by his girlfriend. They share a deep kiss, and she becomes infected. In a dark theater, an infected person coughs, and the camera follows the germs as they swirl unseen among the unsuspecting patrons.

It was a reminder of how vulnerable we all are — wherever we are.

I believe it was that same feeling of vulnerability that prompted such strong reactions from the people around here to the thought of Ebola on the loose in their midst.

Ebert observed that he got hooked by the various stories — even though he knew he was being manipulated. I guess the thing that separated us was that he didn't mind being manipulated, and I kinda did.

Maybe that seems strange, given the fact that we have all come to an understanding that we are manipulated by images and sounds on TV as well as the movie screen. Believe me, I have been aware of that for a long time.

And I suppose Ebert makes a valid point that it's something of a guilty pleasure to allow yourself to be manipulated, all the while knowing precisely what was happening. That probably explains things like the popularity of romance novels — or horror/suspense stories, like the ones Stephen King has made a fortune writing.

"Outbreak" followed a tried–and–true movie formula. It was straight out of the old Westerns, complete with a showdown in the sky at the end. It was a faceoff between Hoffman and Gooding in a helicopter trying to prevent a bomber from incinerating the small, defenseless town. (Sounds positively "Dr. Strangelove," huh?)

"By then," Ebert wrote, "I was hooked."

Yeah, OK, I guess I was, too. But really I expected more from a movie with Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman in it — and Wolfgang Petersen in the director's chair — than shameless manipulation.

Well, I guess if you're going to see a movie about the outbreak of a deadly disease, you should know you'll be manipulated.

But the stakes were so high in the story that I think I wanted more of an acknowledgement of that at the end of the movie — and I was disappointed that it was not forthcoming.