The Problem of the Pandemic Movie

The 1995 film Outbreak offers a narrow vision of heroism during an epidemiological crisis. That message is ill-suited to the realities of the coronavirus.

Rene Russo (left) and Susan Lee Hoffman in the 1995 film "Outbreak"
Warner Brothers / Everett Collection

Over the weekend, images spread around social media: people crowded together at brunch, drinking mimosas in oblivious or defiant revelry. People packed into bars, for standard weekend celebrations or Saint Patrick’s Day parties. Whether the individuals in the pictures didn’t know about the grave dangers they were posing by gathering—dangers not necessarily to themselves, but to other people—or whether their fun was more expressly rebellious, the effect was the same: a global pandemic, made steadily more threatening because it is steadily more difficult to contain. Disease, passed to the vulnerable by those who might assume themselves invincible. Dancing—or in this case, drinking green-tinted beer—as the world burns.

Looking at the pictures this weekend, I thought back, as so many others have, to the movies I’ve been turning to lately for catharsis during the crisis. I thought briefly about Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film about a disconcertingly coronavirus–like virus—and an exploration of how thin the line can be between the apocalyptic and the banal. But then I thought about Outbreak, which takes on similar ideas (a viral contagion, an invisible threat) from a decidedly less cerebral point of view. Wolfgang Petersen’s film, which premiered in 1995 and shows its age, is not a subtle movie, or even a terribly thoughtful one. For a movie whose subject is epidemiology, Outbreak features a shocking number of explosions: Its genre, fundamentally and unapologetically, is Action. But the film’s utter lack of nuance is itself revealing: Its bluntness manages to capture some of the extreme contradictions of this moment—a situation some are treating as an emergency and others are treating as a Monday. Outbreak gets a lot wrong, but it gets one of the broadest things right. It understands that, in America, one of the biggest threats to public health can be American culture itself.

In some ways, I didn’t need to rewatch Outbreak: Several of its scenes have been seared in my mind for years. I remembered, especially, the horrific manifestations of the film’s semi-fictional disease (a form of hemorrhagic fever whose symptoms are very similar to those of Ebola): the sores, the sweat, the way it caused people to bleed from their eyes. I remembered the moment when Robby (Rene Russo) pricks herself with an infected needle through the layers of her protective suit: how her expression melts from frenzied panic to dull horror as she removes her gloves to see her own tainted blood. And I remembered the film’s visualization of the virus as it spreads through a crowded movie theater: the particles, imperceptible and deadly, traveling—dancing, almost—from the mouth of an infected man into the body of a woman who has opened her mouth to laugh at the comedy on-screen. (Part of what made that scene stay with me, I assume, is that I saw it as it was intended to be witnessed: in a movie theater.)

Rewatching Outbreak, though, the scene I found most striking was one I’d managed to forget about entirely: the one in which two families, mutinous and angry, try to escape the military-imposed quarantine that has been enacted around the picturesque coastal town of Cedar Creek, California, in an effort to keep the virus contained. The families’ attempt to flee begins with a high-speed chase—pickup trucks bumping chaotically over land not meant for cars—and ends, if you’ll forgive a decades-old spoiler, in death: A military helicopter, after warning both families that it will fire on them if they continue their path toward the land beyond the barriers, makes good on the threat. Gunfire meets one truck’s engine. (This is one of the many explosions in the film.) The camera cuts briefly to the aftermath of the showdown: a family, burned alive in their vehicle, graphically punished for their rebellion.

Contagion, too, features an attempted escape from a quarantine. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and his daughter try to breach a National Guard barrier in their effort to flee Minnesota, a viral hot spot. Their effort, though—which consists primarily of the mild-mannered Mitch trying to explain to a guardsman that he has proved immune to the virus—ends in quiet failure.

The difference between the two scenes is also the difference between the two films. Contagion is concerned, primarily, with systems and their constraints. It is interested in the way governments handle public-health crises, and in the way corporations interact with those governments. It is interested in information, and in misinformation. Outbreak, however, is primarily concerned with more sweeping ideas about heroic individualism. It isn’t the story of a network of people whose lives intersect on account of a pandemic; instead, for the most part, it is the story of a singular character, Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), a military virologist who realizes better than anyone else the threat that the novel virus poses.

Outbreak is an extremely blunt movie, with well-defined heroes and villains. There’s Sam: A little bit Cassandra, a little bit Casanova, a little bit Cowboy Cop, he spends much of the film trying to convince other characters—including Robby, the ex-wife he still loves—that they should be more panicked than they are. And he spends all of the film being 100 percent correct. There’s Major Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a military virologist in training who happens, conveniently, to be an ace pilot. On the flip side, there’s the Army general Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland), who was aware of the virus before it spread to the United States, and who refuses to publicize that knowledge, because he had been using it to develop a biological weapon. With the exception of General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman), who is simultaneously complicit in and conflicted about McClintock’s scheme, virtually no gray areas are to be found in Outbreak. While Contagion’s core insight is that viral illness connects people physically but also symbolically—sickness reduces people down to the cellular truths of their bodies—Outbreak makes the opposite assumption: that there is exceptionalism to be found even, and especially, within pandemics.

Outbreak, in that, offers the easy assurances that any such action film will. It creates a universe in which right and wrong are both extremely—cartoonishly—legible. Its dramas are, often literally, explosive. That makes for good entertainment; it also, as it happens, makes for extremely poor insight into the current pandemic. One of the defining qualities of COVID-19, after all, is precisely its lack of explosive, surround-sound dramas. The virus resembles the flu. It is carried, sometimes, without revealing its presence through any physical symptoms at all. It is deadly in part because it seems so banal. It hides in plain sight. And combatting it demands, often, the action of inaction: staying home. Doing nothing.

Which is also to say that COVID-19 is the kind of illness that is made exponentially worse by assumptions that are all too American: that riding out the pandemic without changing one’s habits or behaviors is possible. That people can—and should—go it alone. That independence is morally preferable to interconnection. And that heroism is big and loud and explosive. Outbreak, in that way—in its all-too-easy assumptions—anticipated some of what happened this weekend. It foresaw a moment in which some people would simply defy the exhortations of experts, either because they were not aware of the pleas or because they had seen fit to ignore them. It foresaw a situation in which some would respond to the dire threats of viral contagion by bragging that, instead of self-quarantining or practicing any form of social distancing, they went out for burgers at Red Robin because “this is America” and “I’ll do what I want.” Individualism can be a virtue; in a pandemic, though, it is a liability. It is also, more simply, a lie.