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.