Casualties of War
“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aischylos.
In 1989, a secret U.S. Army SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team was called in after an Ebola outbreak among monkeys in a Reston, VA lab; a mere ten miles from Washington, D.C. They eventually determined that this particular strain wasn’t contagious for humans – others, however, are; capable of producing a 90% mortality rate within a matter of days. The Reston incident produced Richard Preston’s bestselling book The Hot Zone, on which this movie is loosely based (another project involving Robert Redford and Jodie Foster eventually folded).
Like the Reston Ebola strain, the (fictitious) Motaba virus at the center of Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak is brought to the U.S. by an infected monkey, caught near a village in the Zairean (now: Congolese) Motaba Valley. Unlike the Reston Ebola it is contagious for humans, with a 100% mortality rate within a single day. And, again unlike the Reston strain, it is airborne, i.e., not only transmitted by direct human-to-human contact.
Officially nobody has any prior knowledge of the virus at the time of its apparent first hit. In fact, once they’ve overcome their shock about its gruesome effects, USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his assistants, Majors Schuler and Salt (Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.) – in Zaire to provide medical assistance – are downright ecstatic to have discovered a new virus; a once-in-a-lifetime event for most scientists, if it happens at all. What they don’t know is that their own superiors, Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) and Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) have encountered this virus before, albeit non-airborne, in a mercenary camp in 1967 … and on McClintock’s orders, firebombed the camp to secretly develop a biological weapon. Now McClintock insists that their knowledge remain secret even after a first Motaba outbreak in Boston, brought about by the Californian animal lab worker (Patrick Dempsey) who has unwittingly smuggled the carrier monkey out to sell it to a pet store; and after another outbreak in Cedar Creek, CA, transmitted through the pet store owner and a lab technician infected by his blood. McClintock’s solution is the same as 30 years earlier: Firebomb the contaminated area and everybody in it, keep your weapon and be done with it.
But unlike 1967, complete secrecy is no longer an option, as not only Colonel Daniels’s team but also his ex-wife Robby (Rene Russo), who is now with the CDC and has helped contain the Boston outbreak, is aware of the virus’s presence. Thus, McClintock opts for the reverse strategy, obtains a presidential OK for his “Operation Clean Sweep” – after a dramatic presentation to the assembled cabinet resulting in the conclusion that the “bug” is capable of spreading to the entire country, including D.C., within a mere 48 hours; and the admonishment “Be compassionate, but be compassionate globally” – and orders Ford to get Daniels out of the way and keep him “in line.”
Daniels, however, who has long earned a reputation for following orders rather selectively, rushes to Cedar Creek, to work alongside Robby and her team trying to contain the virus. In short order Ford and McClintock show up as well, and soon the town is crawling with soldiers, who seal it off to the outside world and implement a curfew, to prevent a further spread of the virus but also in preparation of “Operation Clean Sweep.” A frantic race ensues; pitting Daniels and Salt, who set out to search for the host animal to develop an antiserum, against their own comrades.
The premise of Outbreak is entirely believable; as evidenced not only by the 1989 Virginia incident – after all, it was mere luck that the Reston strain didn’t prove contagious for humans –, but even more so, by the mid-2010 years’ severe Ebola crisis in several West African countries, which claimed the lives of thousands of Africans and also those of a number of North Americans and Europeans who had traveled to the countries struck by the disease. Moreover, it has long been public knowledge that various kinds of viral strains do exist in the U.S. and other countries; at the very least for experimental purposes. While their military use is banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, there still is no functioning control mechanism in place (which was also a factor in the Iraq weapons of mass destruction debate). And although the U.S. is a signatory to both aforementioned instruments and has previously stated its non-use policy, the Bush government abandoned international discussions on the issue in 2001.
So, Outbreak addresses enormously important concerns; and it does so compellingly and with a stellar cast. Dustin Hoffman imbues his Colonel Daniels with tremendous compassion but also a great sense of humor; and his snappy exchanges with Russo’s Robby Keough and his team are a delight, especially those with Kevin Spacey, who in 1995 burst into movie audiences’ collective awareness with this film, the Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects, and Se7en. Morgan Freeman brings all his sensitivity to the movie’s most intricate role, General Ford, who is caught between being party to McClintock’s scheme and realizing its profound immorality. Then-27-year-old Cuba Gooding Jr. may have been a bit young to play a Major, but he certainly stands his ground; and few actors can portray a villain as menacingly as Donald Sutherland, although the script gives him little opportunity for true complexity.
Unfortunately, Outbreak gets the full “Hollywood thriller” treatment, complete with dramatic score, two-dimensional villain, clichéd ending and reliance on a few coincidences too many. This (and some plot inconsistencies) somewhat reduces its effect, preventing a good movie from becoming a truly great one – although its ‘copter chases are pure eye candy; and it certainly helps that they were shot by Michael Ballhaus, arguably the business’s best cameraman. But for the importance of its subject alone, and its outstanding cast, Outbreak is worth all the notice it has received.
“[The Cedar Creek population] are casualties of war. … I’d give them all a medal if I could. But they are casualties of war.” “Outbreak,” Maj.Gen. Donald McClintock
“[N]o massacre has occurred … no further action is warranted.” Department of the Army: initial investigation report on the March 16, 1968 My Lai incident (Vietnam)
Production Credits /
Cast and Crew
- Studio: Warner Bros. (1995)
- Director: Wolfgang Petersen
- Executive Producers: Duncan Henderson & Anne Kopelson
- Producers: Wolfgang Petersen / Arnold Kopelson / Gail Katz
- Screenplay: Laurence Dworet & Robert Roy Pool
- Music: James Newton Howard
- Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
- Dustin Hoffman: Sam Daniels
- Rene Russo: Roberta “Robby” Keough
- Morgan Freeman: Brigadier General Billy Ford
- Kevin Spacey: Major Casey Schuler
- Cuba Gooding Jr.: Major Salt
- Donald Sutherland: Major General Donald McClintock
- Patrick Dempsey: James “Jimbo” Scott
- Zakes Mokae: Dr. Benjamin Iwabi
- Malick Bowens: Dr. Raswani
- J.T. Walsh: White House Chief of Staff (uncredited)
New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1995)
- Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
– also for Swimming with Sharks, The Usual Suspects, and Se7en
Seattle International Film Festival (1995)
- Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
– also for The Usual Suspects and Se7en
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Awards (1996)
- Top Box Office Films: James Newton Howard