Movie review: Outbreak

I don’t know how I missed Outbreak during the first 18 months of 14 days to flatten the curve, but the 1995 movie is fun to watch to see what they got right.

The virus in the movie is Ebola, essentially, and it kills previously healthy people of all ages (not at a median age of 82, as COVID-19 kills in Maskachusetts).

The film anticipates my idea of protection camps for the unvaccinated and then asks the reasonable question “Wouldn’t it make sense to kill everyone in the protection camp in order to prevent the virus from spreading?” (How are we going to deal with the unvaccinated, whom we currently blame for all of our woes?)

The remedy for the virus anticipates Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s decision to go big on antibody treatment. It’s a movie, so of course the brilliant Army physician (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is able to develop the treatment and manufacture thousands of doses within hours.

If you love helicopters (and who doesn’t?), you’ll appreciate their central role towards the end of the movie, though you might be doubtful that a guy with 60 hours of training can fly as well as Cuba Gooding Jr. does.

What the film gets completely wrong is the level of resistance to expect from the American people. When the government locks people down they don’t go meekly back to their houses, but have to be forced at gunpoint by an Army battalion. The small-town Californians don’t welcome having their First Amendment rights terminated, but instead insist on what they claim are their rights.

Good News: the movie stars a Biden-supporting actor (for a change!); Bad News: “All the women who have accused Dustin Hoffman of sexual misconduct” (Business Insider, 2017).

Readers: What did you think of Outbreak and what are the differences and similarities between the movie and the U.S. response to SARS-CoV-2?


  • Contagion (I saw it, but don’t remember it that well)

8 thoughts on “Movie review: Outbreak

  1. I missed it – not because I don’t like Cuba Gooding Jr. or helicopters – but ’95 was a thin movie year for me, there was way too much going on. I managed to squeak into Casino. The only other movie for me that year was Die Hard with a Vengeance, which was about some skanky, semi-cadaverous German Eurotrash terrorist played by Jeremy Irons. His Bad Guy name is “Simon” and so, naturally, the game he plays with John McClane is….wait for it….”Simon Says!” He’s also Hans Gruber’s brother – yes, the same Hans Gruber who McClane and his estranged wife Holly waved “Merry Christmas! Goodbye!” to many years prior, from the upper floors of Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles. Now Simon is back for revenge!. He wants to rob the Federal Reserve Building in NYC. You supply the jokes about skanky German terrorists robbing the Federal Reserve.
    Of course some of the best parts of DHwaV have less to do with the story per se and more with the back-and-forth between John McClane and Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) who has other lines that people would find current and refreshing:

    “I’m not jumping through hoops for some psycho! That’s a white man, with white problems. You deal with him!” I guess you could call this: Black Lives Matter by Saying: “Hell, No!”

    However, I’m a good sport, so I’ll rent Outbreak tonight for $3.99 on Amazon and let you know what I think tomorrow. How bad could it be?

  2. That was mandatory viewing back when biotech was the future & we were all told to avoid engineering because the cold war was over. It was weird that the characters were constantly flying around in helicopters between every line of dialog instead of using radios or standing on the same set, but the Greenspun of 1995 was gainfully focused on writing web servers. Maybe future Greenspun wrote the script & sent it through a time traveling blog post.

  3. The virus is named Motaba but is functionally similar to Ebola as you note.

    Outbreak successfully anticipates government foreknowledge of the virus. The military knew about Motaba and already had an antiserum for the Alpha Variant. The movie also successfully anticipates the emergence of a Delta Variant.

    In Outbreak the military wants to bomb the town of Cedar Creek in order to destroy the Delta Variant, and also to keep its Alpha Variant antiserum secret so it can use Motaba as a bioweapon. What the movie gets wrong is the expectation that the evil military would be leading the coverup in order to keep the antiserum technology secret. Instead it was the NIH/NIAID that attempted to hide its involvement in funding the Wuhan Lab.

    Another thing Outbreak correctly anticipated is the use of the IHME model. ( In Outbreak, the government’s model predicts that 260 million Americans will be dead within 48 hours.

    The biggest errors in the movie is the failure to anticipate that law enforcement would wear homemade cloth masks instead of biohazard suits. (

    Runner-up for biggest error is the failure to realize Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffham) would actually be a transgender, Samantha Daniels. At least they used a unisex name!

    • > Outbreak successfully anticipates government foreknowledge of the virus.

      Indeed the Daily Mail (which leads investigative journalism since 2020 and was the first to report the cancellation of Dr. Abbot) now reports gain of function funding by the NIH:

      “In a new letter, NIH’s principal deputy director Lawrence A. Tabak says lab rats were infected with the modified bat virus in the Wuhan lab in China”

      “While never using the term, Tabak essentially confirms that gain of function research took place despite consistent denials from Dr. Fauci.”

      Perhaps Fauci thought that the public was not ready for the truth!

  4. OK I watched it as promised. I will be submitting an invoice for two hours and 30 minutes of my time, bathroom break included. I will submit the form into the luminiferous ether and see what happens.

    Quick notes from memory here. It’s a little disorganized. First off @Steve’s review isn’t bad, good starting point.

    This is a pretty standard mid-90s formula action movie with a few higher-echelon stars thrown in, I guess to add “gravitas.” I must say that whatever alleged “chemistry” there was between Dustin Hoffman’s character and his wife did not come through well on the screen. He seemed old enough to be her father and I never was able to discern much of a “spark” between them, so the love interest subplot was pretty badly strained from the beginning, I guess as estranged as their marriage had become in the film.

    Anyway: 1) They tried to cram too much into this film. They try to make it into a quasi-intellectual spellbinder crossed with an action thriller crossed with a morality play. Of course the Military is the enemy, and Dustin Hoffman (despite have what must be Top Secret Level Five Bioweapons Clearance) just doesn’t know bad it really is. Then when he finds out, he has to try to save the town and the world from the bioweapon. OK. But out of the 47 scenes, I think there are at least 15 too many. The result is a lot of super-fast paced “revelatory” dialogue where the cast seems to come up with answers by being gifted with extraterrestrial-level intelligence.

    Of course, this whole thing started back in Africa during the Vietnam war. Kevin Spacey plays a very good closeted Gay scientist, just to make sure all his friends in the audience know there’s a Gay man in the movie. Mission accomplished.

    You really have to have a very thick Fourth Wall indeed to watch this film and maintain your suspension of disbelief, because 1) It comes at you so fast that it explains itself too quickly and 2) There are so many logical lapses, preposterous circumstances, inexplicable details, continuity problems, outright dialogue mistakes. For example, when they figure out that the First Host of the virus is monkey, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character doesn’t know that, but somehow Dustin Hoffman’s character says: “We’ve got to find this chimp.” Amazing!

    There’s also what appears to be a big mistake: the President’s name is never mentioned despite giving the authorization to blow an American town to smithereens using the US Military and kill everyone in it. I guess they didn’t want to use anyone’s real name. However, hanging on the wall in the background in a government office earlier in the film is a clear picture of Bill Clinton as the President. I guess nobody caught that.

    There’s a lot of great helicopter flying in this movie, but the idea that Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character could possibly do any of it with 60 hours under his belt is so laugh-out-loud preposterous that it could only come from Hollywood. They also seem to fly a very small helicopter a very long way for a very long time without running out of fuel, and they dodge a lot of bullets from a much bigger and presumably fast pair of helicopters on along the way. Either the military’s helicopter gunships don’t work, or that’s just pure nonsense and very hard to believe, even in a movie that’s supposed to be preposterous.

    However I have to hand it to the actual stunt pilots: they did a great job and that’s some very cool flying. I think the helicopters were the best part of the movie.

  5. Also: @Philg’s right about the level of resistance in the movie vs. during Coronaplague. Those people in the Northern California town did indeed fit the stereotype that Hollywood assigns to Deplorables (unwashed, kind of stupid, homespun, not well educated, clueless and easily fooled and corralled, driving old pickup trucks and doing dumb, uninteresting things wearing ugly clothes in unattractive places) but hey: the military in this film shows up with huge numbers of armed troops with helicopters and heavy machine guns, and at least the people there try to put up some kind of fight before being led away into the tents while they await the air-fuel bomb that will blow them to Kingdom Come to save McClintock’s bioweapon.

    I think Dustin Hoffman was a waste in this role. Maybe he (and Sutherland) needed the money, but he’s just not a good action movie hero. The “jump into the life raft” scene was knee-slapping comedy: “Jews do not jump out of helicopters onto Korean freighters in the foggy Pacific Northwest. Oy!”

    He tries to use his soft, sensitive looks a few times in the film to add a touch of humanity to his character, but basically everyone in this film is so caricatured and hastily-drawn and one-dimensional that it’s just wasted.

    After a certain point – somewhere around 1995 – I just couldn’t watch Donald Sutherland anymore, and I have a hard time watching him in this film. Maybe that’s a personal problem and other people love his stuff, but every time a bunch of big Hollywood lefties put on military uniforms and try to play pretend, they make me want to puke. My favorite remembrance of Sutherland now is Animal House, where he stand up tippy toe and exposes his ass.

    But man! Cuba Gooding Jr’s character is a real Renaissance Man genius. Doctor, virologist, nerves-of-steel helicopter pilot, and humanitarian extraordinaire. He wins the movie, Black Lives Matter, Over and Out.

  6. Final Thought: It’s amazing that in 1995 we seemed to know a lot more about viruses and virology and how viruses emerge and what they do – even in a kinda schlocky action movie – than Michael Osterholm, MD, MPH. says we do today. He was recently quoted in the New York Times by David Leonhardt saying that we are in the “CAVE AGES” of understanding viruses.

    So evidently we’ve gone BACKWARD in time and understanding by a long, long way in the past 26 years.

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