Friday, March 27, 2020

“Outbreak”: Monkeying Around With a Pandemic

A pal who knows my movie-watching habit suggested I take a gander at Outbreak, on which her colleague had worked as a scientific advisor. Now that we’re all in a state of panic over COVID-19, this all-star 1995 thriller certainly seems timely. The question for me was this: would a movie about a raging viral epidemic freak me out?

Fortunately for the state of my nerves, Outbreak takes a very Hollywood approach to potential real-life disaster. Yes, it deals with a mysterious and terrible illness that begins overseas (in the jungles of Zaire) and then --through a series of mounting missteps -- begins spreading through the general population of a California town. The culprit is a particularly ugly, particularly nasty monkey who turns out to be the host of the mutating virus. It’s smuggled out of a science lab by a feckless employee (Patrick Dempsey) who tries to sell it to a pet shop. But then, of course, he ultimately Gets What He Deserves.

That’s Hollywood Rule #101: people get what they deserve. The Good Guys include a dedicated team of medical researchers, led by stalwart Dustin Hoffman (lightyears away from his iconic performances as underdogs Benjamin Braddock and Ratso Rizzo). He’s got an eager young sidekick, Cuba Gooding Jr., who freaks out at first but of course will eventually rise to the occasion. He’s got an acerbic scientist-buddy, played by a red-headed Kevin Spacey, who cracks jokes but is true-blue all the way. (I suspect this character is meant to be gay, which helps explain why he’s the one Good Guy who succumbs to the disease’s ravages, while everyone else mourns his loss.) Hoffman also has an estranged wife, Rene Russo, who is a fellow scientist. At the start of the film, their marriage is ending, strained beyond endurance by their competing careers, but you just know they still love one another.

In the Bad Guy camp, there’s creepy Donald Sutherland, a Major General who has his own nefarious uses for the deadly virus. Hollywood knows full well that a force of nature doesn’t make a good on-screen villain: you also need a human bad-guy on whom to fix all blame. And Sutherland, with his white mane of hair and his icy blue eyes, fills the bill perfectly. So fixated is he on keeping to his scheme that he’s ready to bomb the citizens of Cedar Creek back to the Stone Age. Lower down on the chain of command is a Brigadier General played by Morgan Freeman, who has a warm though feisty relationship with Hoffman’s Colonel Sam Daniels. When Hoffman pushes for a strong medical response to the budding crisis, Freeman stonewalls him.  It’s not that he’s a genuine Bad Guy, but he’s under orders from Sutherland to keep the evil secrets under wraps. Still, he IS Morgan Freeman, so you know that at a critical moment he’ll Do the Right Thing.

And how, we wonder, does the epidemic end? Well, fortunately, it’s just a matter of tracking down that one host monkey and using its antibodies in a serum that instantly solves everyone’s problems (too late for poor Kevin Spacey, alas). Meanwhile, Major General Donald Sutherland is still out there with his bombs. And so a movie that purports to be about a medical crisis ends up with a big action sequence involving a whole lot of helicopters. That, of course, is Hollywood Rule #102: when in doubt, end with a chase scene

So this movie has it all: blood, guts, romance, diversity, helicopters.  Spoiler alert: they all live happily ever after.

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