Outbreak The Movie Essay

There were hints of similar flippancy in "In the Line of Fire," Mr. Petersen's most successful foray into Hollywood-style storytelling. But they were obscured by fine acting, flirty chemistry and a plot with much more genuine excitement than the trumped-up intrigue here. This is a film in which one brave character finds himself stumbling onto Something Big, in this case involving biological warfare. It's the type of conspiracy that involves Donald Sutherland in his sinister mode, and it goes all the way to the top.

The obligatory White House scene presents a map of the United States on which a few red dots indicate disease outbreaks. Then the map goes solid red to show just how disastrous matters will soon be, unless Sam Daniels saves the day. Can he do it? Let's just say that Sam is eventually moved to defy his superiors, and that he makes an impassioned plea in behalf of America's soul.

In telling such an overheated story, Mr. Petersen loses the essential appeal (though that's the wrong word) of his subject matter: that it might be real, and that in an age of AIDS it has terrible relevance to viewers' lives. The effort to turn "Outbreak" into an action picture insures that little of it will be believable, regardless of how much scientific data has been woven into the story. The film's shallowness also contributes to the impression that no problem is too thorny to be solved by movie heroics. If a person spends enough time looking serious, sounding defiant and staring intently at computer screens, all will be well with the world.

Mr. Petersen's technical proficiency is on a higher level, delivering genuinely chilling frissons whenever he concentrates on something straightforward, like the specifics of how the disease is spread. Scenes that trace the plague's progress become edgy and suspenseful, especially when contrasted with more hyperbolic events elsewhere in the story. The camera hurtles forward too automatically at the prospect of any excitement, but Michael Ballhaus's cinematography is sharp and nimble, giving "Outbreak" a crispness that suits its story. This and colorful production design make the film look more substantial than it sounds.

The supporting actors are appealing despite the perfunctoriness of their roles. Morgan Freeman is the longtime military officer torn between conscience and duty. Mr. Sutherland is suitably spooky and wears perfect white hair. Kevin Spacey is the acerbic research sidekick who proves, under pressure, that he's less cavalier than he sounds.

Cuba Gooding Jr. is the rookie, which makes him the sounding board for passages explaining lesions, hemorrhages and other virus-related details. Ms. Russo is as pleasing a presence here as she was in "In the Line of Fire." She provides warmth, intelligence and window-dressing in equal measure.

"Outbreak" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Its gore is relatively discreet, but it graphically illustrates the effects of a deadly plague. OUTBREAK Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; written by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Neil Travis, Lynzee Klingman and William Hoy; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, William Sandell; produced by Arnold Kopelson, Mr. Petersen and Gail Katz; released by Warner Brothers. Running time: 125 minutes. This film is rated R. WITH: Dustin Hoffman (Dr. Sam Daniels), Rene Russo (Dr. Roberta Keough), Morgan Freeman (Gen. Billy Ford), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Major Salt), Patrick Dempsey (Jimbo Scott), Donald Sutherland (General McClintock) and Kevin Spacey (Maj. Casey Schuler).

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  • In July of 1967, In Motaba River Valley, Zaire, a virus with a 100% mortality rate starts infecting people. The virus becomes known as the Motaba virus, and it's so deadly that it causes severe bleeding and liquefies internal organs, killing within 3 days. The virus wipes out Motaba River Valley, and a devastatingly huge fire bomb is dropped onto Motaba River Valley in order to reduce the chances of further infection. The bomb was dropped on the orders of corrupt General Donald McClintock, even though an army surgeon, General Bill Ford, was against the idea. 27 years later, in 1994, there is another outbreak in Motaba River Valley. At the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), located at Fort Detrick in Maryland, Colonel Sam Daniels is doing research on the Motaba virus, and so is his ex-wife Roberta Keough, who works at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. A monkey carrying the Motaba virus stows away on a ship that is heading for the USA, and after the monkey's arrival, people in Cedar Creek, California start becoming infected by the virus. Sam and Roberta head into Cedar Creek with fellow doctor Casey Schuler, and they start searching for the monkey, thinking that the monkey is the key to finding a cure. Along the way, Sam stumbles onto some information that may be of help -- McClintock has been concealing vital information from the president of the United States. Since 1967, McClintock and Ford have been in possession of E-1101, a serum that was made to cure the virus. McClintock has been trying to stop Ford from coming forward with this information, and so far, McClintock has succeeded. McClintock now wants to drop onto Cedar Creek the kind of firebomb that was dropped on Motaba River Valley 27 years ago. Sam and Roberta figure out that the virus in the Cedar Creek outbreak is a new strain of the Motaba virus -- an airborne strain that is even more contagious than the flu. When a new serum is made to stop the new strain, Sam and Roberta set out to stop McClintock from having the town blown up.

    —Todd Baldridge

  • A deadly airborne virus finds its way into the USA and starts killing off people at an epidemic rate. Col Sam Daniels' job is to stop the virus spreading from a small town, which must be quarantined, and to prevent an over reaction by the White House.

    —Rob Hartill

  • A lethal virus is transported to the United States via an African monkey host. The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infections Diseases and the Centre for Disease Control are two Federal agencies headed by an ex-husband and his former wife rush to stop its deadly spread. Will they succeed?

    —Harald Mayr

  • When a disease in Africa is discovered, Colonel Sam Daniels of the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases or USAMRIID, is sent to investigate. When he reports back to his superior officer General Ford and tells him that they should put out an alert on this disease but the General that since the disease is so far away and not airborne that it can't possibly reach the U.S. However, a monkey from that part of Africa was captured and brought to the U.S. and a man who works at the customs house took it and tried to sell it but when the person he tried to sell it to rejected it he released it. Later the man who arrived in Boston collapses and dies, Col. Daniels wants to look into it but General Ford denies his request so he turns to his ex-wife, who works at the Center for Disease Control or CDC to look into and they discover it's the African disease but since it kills very quickly, Col. Daniels feels that it's been contained until another outbreak!


  • A virus similar to Ebola & Lassa is discovered in Africa in 1969. 25 years later, it resurfaces - and Col. Sam Daniels of the U.S. Army is sent in to investigate it. When he returns he warns his boss, Brigadier-Gen. Ford, of the lethal nature of the virus and wants to put out an alert. Ford, who had been one of the men who first dealt with the virus, insists the virus is contained and unlikely to show up in the U.S. What neither man knows is that the host - a monkey - has been brought into the U.S. by freighter. Through an under-the-table bribe, a young man gets the monkey out of the animal-testing lab it was bound for. Soon, the man is infected - and Col. Daniels' ex-wife, Dr. Keough - now with the CDC - is called into Boston when the young man is brought to a hospital in critical condition. Dr. Keough discovers that the man has died from the virus, and at the same time - on the other side of the country - a new outbreak is starting in a little California town. A quarantine is set up to stop the virus from spreading, while Ford's boss, the sinister Major-Gen. McClintock, has his own agenda in mind - to harness this lethal bug for use as a bioweapon. With the President about to order a fuel-air bomb to be dropped on the little town to stop the outbreak, Daniels must find a way to unravel McClintock's sinister plan...

    —Derek O'Cain

  • Extreme measures are necessary to contain an epidemic of a deadly airborne virus. But how extreme, exactly?


  • The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


    • Motaba, a fictional virus which causes a deadly fever, is discovered in the African jungle in 1967. To maintain the virus as a viable biological weapon, two U.S. Army officers, Donald McClintock and William Ford, destroy the camp where it was found after taking blood samples from the dying victims.

      Twenty-eight years later, in 1995, the virus resurfaces in Zaire. Colonel Sam Daniels, a USAMRIID virologist, is sent to investigate. He and his crew, Lieutenant Colonel Casey Schuler, and new recruit Major Salt gain information about the virus and return to the United States, where Daniels asks his superior, now-Brigadier General William Ford, to put out an alert. Ford knows that the virus is not new, but he tells Daniels it is unlikely to show up. Daniels' ex-wife and former crew-member Roberta Keough, has left USAMRIID to take the lead role of a similar team at the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia and is convinced by Daniels to recommend an alert from the CDC, but her superior balks as well.

      Meanwhile, we learn that the virus arrived via a host animal, a white-headed capuchin monkey, that was smuggled into the United States. James "Jimbo" Scott, an employee at the Bio-Test animal holding facility, bribed a security guard and took the monkey to Cedar Creek, California, to sell on the black market. During the drive, Jimbo is infected with the virus through facial contact with the monkey's saliva.

      Jimbo unsuccessfully tries to sell the monkey to a crooked pet store owner, Rudy Alvarez Before parting ways, however, the monkey scratches Alvarez and infects him, and shares a banana with another monkey already in the store, infecting that monkey as well. Not able to care for the monkey, Jimbo releases it into the woods. Jimbo starts to show signs of infection while flying to Boston, where he gets off the plane and kisses his girlfriend Alice, infecting her as well just before collapsing. They are both hospitalized. Keough investigates the infections but finds that no one other than Jimbo, his girlfriend or Rudy all three of whom die of hemorrhagic fever in the Boston area was infected.

      Meanwhile, the technicians at a Cedar Creek hospital run tests on Rudy's blood. But Henry, one of the technicians, accidentally breaks a vial, splattering the contents, infecting and killing him, but not before visiting a movie theater. The virus mutates into a new strain, capable of spreading like flu, and numerous Cedar Creek citizens are exposed to Motaba at the theater. Daniels learns of the infection and flies to Cedar Creek alongside Schuler and Salt, against Ford's orders, joining Keough's team.

      As Daniels and his team begin a search for the host animal, a state of martial law is declared in Cedar Creek, and the U.S. Army has quarantined the town to contain the outbreak, including preventing an attempt by civilians from breaking quarantine. During their research, Schuler is infected when his suit tears. Keough follows after she accidentally stabs herself with a contaminated needle while collecting samples due to Schuler suddenly convulsing. A mystery serum, E-1101, is introduced to those suffering from Motaba. Daniels soon realizes that the serum is not experimental, but was designed to cure Motaba, and that Ford knew about the virus beforehand. However, the serum does not help the residents of Cedar Creek, who are infected by a mutated strain. Daniels confronts Ford, who admits that he withheld information on the virus due to national security and Motaba's potential to be turned into a biological weapon.

      Daniels learns from Ford of Operation Clean Sweep, a plan by the military to bomb the town of Cedar Creek, with approval from the President of the United States. Now-Major General Donald McClintock plans to use the bombing to cover up the virus's existence to protect his secret biological weapon project. To prevent Daniels from finding a cure, McClintock has him arrested by implicating Daniels as a viral carrier. This leads Daniels and Salt to search for the host animal to save the town by escaping custody by helicopter. After the animal holding facility who had been aiding Daniels by tracking down how the host animal got into the country learns what happened from the security guard about what Jimbo did, the two are able to track down the ship that carried the host animal and Daniels obtains a picture of Betsy and broadcasts it on the news. Mrs. Jeffries realizes that this is the animal her daughter Kate is playing with in their backyard. She calls the station, and the two men arrive at the family's house, though Colonel Briggs intercepts the call and informs McClintock of Daniels and Salt's location who heads out to intercept them by helicopter. Kate coaxes out Betsy, whom Salt tranquilizes. Learning from Daniels that the host animal is captured, Ford delays the bombing.

      Flying back, Daniels and Salt are confronted by McClintock who tries to force them to head to their local air force base, only for Daniels to refuse. While McClintock's helicopter chases theirs, Daniels has Salt fire two rockets into the trees to trick McClintock into thinking they crashed so they could escape by flying low enough to avoid being detected by radar. Returning to Cedar Creek, Salt mixes Betsy's antibodies with the E-1101 to create an anti-serum in time to save Keough, but not Schuler, who has already succumbed to the virus. McClintock arrives back at base and has Operation Clean Sweep resumed, refusing to listen to Ford who now wishes to call off the bombing. Daniels discovers this and realizes that McClintock will not call off the bombing. He and Salt take it upon themselves to fly in the way of the bomber, commanded by a pilot with the call sign of Sandman One, to stop it. With support from Ford, Daniels is able to stay in the way of the plane long enough to convince Sandman One and his co-pilot that information was purposely withheld from them and that they can now cure the remaining townsfolk. Heeding Daniels' warnings, Sandman One deliberately detonates the bomb over water instead of the town. Before McClintock can order another bombing, Ford, having had enough of McClintock's single-minded obsession, relieves McClintock of his command and places him under arrest for deliberately withholding information from the President, though while being taken away by Col. Briggs, McClintock promises he'll take Ford down with him. Daniels and Keough reconcile, and the remaining residents of the town are successfully cured.

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