Most political thrillers, even the well-made and exciting ones, are cop-outs in the end. Of dozens of titles one could name, from The Manchurian Candidate to The China Syndrome to Capricorn One to The Pelican Brief to Clear and Present Danger, all, good and bad, start by dramatizing some valid political issue. And all end by narrowing the conflict down to some variation on the chase scene, usually in the form of a lone hero struggling to get the microfilm to the media or prevent the assassination or whatever.
Of course, a thriller needs action. What's pernicious about the simplistic way it's usually done in these films is the suggestion that institutional evil is kept in check not by an aware and committed citizenry but by one honest insider. Political heroism is defined not by civic participation but by dodging bullets or eluding ominous helicopters. It may be gratifying to see the corrupt scumbags get theirs, but in the end, deep down, these movies magnify our feeling of powerlessness, because we know it doesn't work that way. In the new suspense drama Outbreak, however, the principal villain is not some crooked government agency but an African supervirus that, monkey-borne, manages to slip into a small town in northern California. Sure enough, it's a brave maverick of an Army virologist (Dustin Hoffman), aided by a small team of white-hatted colleagues (Rene Russo, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Kevin Spacey), to the rescue. The first third or so of Outbreak ain't no popcorn movie. The dramatic elements are purely conventional--though Hoffman lends the film a low-key, easy-to-take performance in the hero role, he and his pals are still action-movie stock figures, full of corny, jocular banter. But the film, especially early on, is full of images that can't fail to tap our modern fears--bleeding orifices, people herded into tent hospitals, streets full of soldiers in gas masks, helicopters swarming like locusts and the ancient-child faces of the infectious monkeys. Such snapshots play to the strengths of the bombastic director, Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire).
All the same, viruses aren't much in the mustache-twirling department. So in the latter part of the film, the services of Donald Sutherland are engaged as a nasty general who wants to wipe out the town to protect the virus's eugenics potential. Sure enough, Outbreak comes down to Hoffman and Gooding scooting about in a helicopter, trying to locate, catch and synthesize a cure from the host monkey in time to stop the bombing of the town, with Sutherland trying to kill them every step of the way.
Know what? As silly, even campy, as this derring-do finale was, and utter cop-out though it was, I didn't mind it. The Sutherland subplot, which also involves Morgan Freeman in a nothing role as a conscience-ridden general, is just a nod to the possibility of a government cover-up of a health risk. Even The Andromeda Strain had that. There's an even briefer nod to the idea that superviruses are nature's revenge on humanity for our incursion into the rain forests. But this isn't what makes Outbreak scary.
The real source of what power the film has is our terror that the speed of the modern world ups the ante on the possibility of a horrible international plague. Air travel has decreased the space between the six degrees of separation, and has thus increased the difficulty of containing infections. A chilling threat, sure, but also a more or less apolitical one.
Outbreak opens with a quote from Nobel laureate Dr. Joshua Lederberg---"The single biggest threat to man's continued dominance on the planet is the virus." I don't necessarily doubt this, but neither am I sure what I'm supposed to do with the information. Hold a protest rally against viruses? If a crisis like the one in this film ever happens--and apparently, there have been near-misses already--and we pull through, it really will mean that a few people in space suits were clever and diligent and lucky, probably the last above all. What they do may not entail playing midair chicken in helicopters, but we laypeople might as well allow ourselves these comforting fantasies, because however it turns out, this time, the issue truly is out of our hands.--M. V. Moorhead