Outbreak, directed by the great and powerful Wolfgang Petersen, is 25 year old film more relevant today than ever before. The movie predominantly is set in the quaint rural town of Cedar Creek, California where army doctors Col Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), Major Casey Schuler (Kevin Spacey) as well as CDC medical expert Robby Keough (Rene Russo) are tasked with containing a viral infectious outbreak against a ticking clock. The movie also features other A-list actors such as Morgan Freeman, and Donald Sutherland who plays a despicably brilliant antagonist.
I chose to watch this movie largely because of the coronavirus pandemic we are currently faced with, and also to see how accurately Hollywood is able to depict the scientific aspects of dealing with a pandemic. An appropriate comparison to this movie would be the 2011 film Contagion, which deals with much of the same issues.
Outbreak does a lot of things right. It accurately captures the panic and terror faced by a population when confronted with a life threatening disease. It correctly depicts how authorities such as the CDC and the army can be deployed to contain the outbreak; particularly through testing and quarantining those that show symptoms of the virus. In addition, Outbreak spends an adequate dose of its runtime to walk its viewers through how science is used to decode the genetic make-up of the virus so that its origin can be traced.
The fact that this film is predominantly set in a small rural town plays to its strengths. This narrows the scope of the movie, making us focus exclusively on the social and health effects of this virus on an unsuspecting and vulnerable population. This is brilliantly illustrated in a sequence near the middle of the film, where Petersen focuses our attention to a single household in the township to show how the outbreak gradually deteriorates the lifestyle of this family.
However, there are certain aspects of this movie that I do not believe are accurate. If we were faced with the same virus today, I do not believe that it would be contained to a single town. The fact that Outbreak portrays this to be the case is a creative decision. Without going into too many spoilers, I also do not buy that a remedial treatment for such a disease could be developed in the time-frame depicted in the movie. Outbreak also tries too hard to make itself enthralling. A great deal of this film is essentially a wild goose chase around California led by Dustin Hoffman’s character to search for the host of this virus. This led to several unnecessary action set-pieces, one of which includes a helicopter chase. I would’ve instead preferred to have spent more time within Cedar Creek.
In short, I believe Outbreak is a good watch in strange times like these. Its got a stellar cast and deals with an important subject matter in a fairly accurate and respectable manner. The movie could have bettered itself by opting to spend more of its runtime inside the township of Cedar Creek, instead of shamelessly trying to woo its viewers through elaborate (and in my opinion) unnecessary action set-pieces.