The lessons ‘Outbreak’ teaches us about America’s Ebola scare

When it comes to the Internet age, fear is its own virus.

Mar 1, 2020, 11:35 pm*

Internet Culture

BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF

When horror strikes in the real world, it’s common for art to try to understand that horror, in an attempt to make it easier to process. But what happens when art tries to extract an understanding out of something that’s as simultaneously elusive and deadly as Ebola?

The New York Times published a report this week breaking down the fundamentals of the current outbreak. So far, the affected areas include Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. A few early reports said that the virus had popped up in New York City, although these have since been proven false.

Yet with social media, it’s easy to feel like Ebola is knocking at our back door. The Times’ Joshua A. Kirsch pointed out that the virus is trending on Twitter, prompting mass, if not unverified, concern.

That social media would spread rumors of a virus quicker than the virus would spread itself is logical. Americans have always been quick to become alarmists on health issues, and it doesn’t help that the last decade brought us the Bird Flu and that this year has seen the resurgence of the “black death” in Asia and Africa.

On top of that, pop culture is constantly capitalizing on our fear of viruses and disease. 2014, in depressingly fitting fashion, has given us SyFy’s Helix and FX’s The Strain. You can also find more specific accounts of Ebola in Richard Preston’s bestselling The Hot Zone and in David Quammen’s Spillover.

However, if you want to take a more Hollywood route to discussing Ebola, your best best is the 1995 film, Outbreak. Outbreak was helmed by renowned Das Boot director, Wolfgang Petersen, and also sports a very impressive cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr. (right before Jerry Maguire), Patrick Dempsey, Donald Sutherland, and Kevin Spacey (who starred in Se7en and The Usual Suspects the same year). 

The movie follows a military doctor (Hoffman), who is working with his team and members of the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) to prevent the spread of a deadly virus called “Matoba” in the United States. Along the way, secrets and politics threaten to destroy the whole operation, and take innocent lives while the protagonists race to find a cure.

“Matoba” isn’t technically Ebola, except for that all intents and purposes, it is. If anything, the virus represents a kind of “Super-Ebola,” making it that much more terrifying, while heightening the already heightened fears of the time. Rest assured, Matoba is so like Ebola in symptoms and effect, trivia has it rumored that one of the pictures used in the movie to illustrate the fake virus shows, in reality, a distinct strain of the real virus.

Outbreak isn’t a perfect movie, but it is the perfect movie to talk about the way pop culture portrays viruses, specifically Ebola, and what that means the world’s new Ebola outbreak today.

First, a little history on Ebola up through 2014, from Agata Blaszczak-Boxe at CBS News. Blaszczak-Boxe writes:

The first reported outbreaks occurred in 1976. In the central African nation then known as Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 318 people got sick, and 280 of them—88 percent—died… The then-mysterious illness raged from one person to another in the remote area, spread through contact with patients’ bodily fluids. The disease was further spread via contaminated needles and syringes in the local hospital. It was finally controlled through village quarantines and improved medical containment and sterilization practices… Other serious outbreaks of the virus over the years have resulted in deaths of hundreds more people… Different outbreaks have varied greatly in terms of the fatality rate. In a 2007-2008 outbreak of Ebola-Bundibugyo virus in Uganda, 25 percent of those who got infected died… The current outbreak involves the Ebola-Zaire strain, and the CDC estimates its fatality rate at about 55 to 60 percent.

55-60 percent is a lot. Unsurprisingly, numbers like that have just about everybody spooked. In 1995, Outbreak’s portrayal of this fear was probably the best thing about the movie; it basically suggests that viruses are the number-one scariest thing that can happen in the world. The film starts off with a quote from renowned molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg, which reads, “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on this planet is the virus.”

The paranoia inherent in this sentiment is older than the science that validates it. As Scott Bixby at The Daily Beast explains, “Although the Old Testament theory of epidemiology has weakened as humanity’s understanding of disease has grown, the species-wide fear of plague hasn’t, as the present public disquiet over the Ebola virus—now ratcheted up with the U.S. patients being brought to these shores—demonstrates.” Bixby goes on from there, warning, “No matter the reassurances of medical professionals, the public, who have seen movies like Outbreak and Contagion, fear the introduction of Ebola to America; of something disastrous happening; of it getting out.”

The reason this fear persists is because disease is so intangible. At its worst, it’s a monster you don’t believe in until it’s too late. That’s why some of the stronger scenes in Outbreak are also the most graphic. It’s not pleasant to look at the bloating, rotted corpse of a person who isn’t even dead yet, but in the case of Ebola, it is a reality. Like Bixby says, fear of a virus is “the fear of kissing an ill loved one goodnight after bringing chicken soup home.” He continues, “It’s the fear of shaking hands with a gay person in the 1980s, or of an immigrant in the 1920s. The idea that the very structure of humanity’s social fabric is what facilitates the spread of our most deadly foes is more terrifying than any knife-wielding maniac.”

Bixby is not the only person to declare as much. The cast of HBO’s The Normal Heart apparently had conversations where they discussed the story as a horror movie, where you never see the killer.

Another good way of looking at a virus is as a force of natural chaos; it’s not immoral, it’s amoral. In what’s perhaps the only good piece of dialog from the pilot of The Strain, Corey Stoll’s (ridiculously named) leading man, Ephraim Goodweather admonishes, “You don’t like terrorists? Try negotiating with a virus. A virus exists only to find a character, and reproduce. That’s all it does. And it does it quickly. It has no political views, it has no religious beliefs, it has no cultural hangups. And it has no respect for a badge. It has no concept of time, or geography. It might as well be the middle ages, except for the convenience of hitching a ride on a metal tube flying from meal, to meal, to meal. That’s how a plague begins.”  

When viruses spread, fear spreads. And with fear comes panic. Another successful, if slightly ludicrous scene in Outbreak finds a local family desperate to get out of the American town where the virus has erupted. The father of this family rides right up to a military blockade, so desperate to get out that he fires his gun at a helicopter..

The scene is entirely over the top, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Mirren Gidda portrayed the panic among the African countries in the throws of the current Ebola outbreak for TIME as completely debilitating. “Fear of the disease is widespread across West Africa,” Gidda wrote. “The Telegraph reported that in Guinea’s capital of Conakry, on August 7 emergency services let a man lie in the street for almost five hours after he collapsed. It wasn’t clear whether he had Ebola.”

And it’s not just Guinea, as Gidda warns. “In Liberia, unconfirmed reports came in from The Liberian Observer that people were poisoning water wells around Monrovia, while state radio claimed 10 died in Dolostown after drinking water that was supposedly poisoned. Though unsubstantiated rumor, the story hasn’t gone unnoticed. Liberians told Gercama the mysterious poisoners could be trying to raise the death toll and so gain more international aid. Others said it was a form of witchcraft to combat the epidemic.”

But where Outbreak succeeds in accurately painting the likely mayhem of an Ebola-ish flare-up in the U.S., some of its stylistic choices amidst the film’s two-hour runtime fall short. At moments, it wants to be an action movie. Besides the instance with the crazed father, there’s also an extended helicopter chase which feels out of whack.

And the climax, while not totally ineffective, takes place in a helicopter, too, seemingly just to convince people that, “If it’s going on in the air, it’s going to be more awesome!” In fact, the movie has a bit of a helicopter problem. It’s so in love with them, another scene has Dustin Hoffman jumping off of one and onto a boat, looking hopelessly uncool (the first choice for the lead role was Harrison Ford).

None of these action beats are needed to make a virus seem terrifying, under the right circumstances. According to the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, the film that truly gets the process surrounding the spread of a virus right, more than anything else in modern entertainment, is Steven Soderbergh’s aforementioned 2011 thriller, Contagion. Rosenberg asserts:

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is about the lead-up to an epidemic, while Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set in its aftermath… That same premise of immune survivors of a plague guides The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit zombie drama… Outbreak, the 1995 virus thriller starring Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo and Morgan Freeman, is from a more hopeful era of action movies, when Hollywood heroes still had a chance to head off the sort of apocalypses that would succeed in the decades to come… Contagion is the rare movie to be interested in the spread of and response to disease, and to acknowledge that the results may lie somewhere between full victory and the end of human existence.

Contagion does have a higher pedigree as a movie, but you can’t fault Outbreak for not being interested in the end of human existence. Not everyone can balance art and entertainment as well as Steven Soderbergh, after all. The other flaws in the film, meanwhile, are more technical, pertaining to definite scientific details about Ebola. Samantha Elliot, Assistant Professor of Biology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, wrote about this in 2009.

The biggest plot twist in the movie is when Motaba mutates and spreads through the air. While this is great storytelling, it is not likely to happen in real life. Viruses are often very specialized in terms of how they infect their hosts. They will usually infect very specific cells of the body. Switching from a virus that infects via bodily fluids to one that infects via the lungs is not likely.

How they find the cure—and find it so rapidly—is also unrealistic. In one scene, the scientists on Hoffman’s team determine that the virus has mutated by looking through a microscope. This is completely inaccurate: a microscope would never detect such a thing. However, it was probably chosen because microscopes are easily identifiable by the general public and can create a picture that the audience can understand. Furthermore, once the infected monkey is caught, the cure for the virus is miraculously attained within days. In reality, it would take months or years to manufacture such a cure, if one was even possible.

The evolution of Matoba from infection through bodily fluids to airborne predator is obviously the type of Hollywood exaggeration understandably included to make the movie more exciting. But the decision to bypass the difficulties in finding a cure for the disease opens up a more interesting discussion.

Viruses have no political agenda by design, but as is the case with everything in an uber-political world, the system around them is often highly politicized.

In a compelling turn of events, the WHO (World Health Organization) just made the decision to classify the experimental drug ZMapp as ethical in treating Ebola patients, after it saved the lives of two American doctors. As great as this sounds, some feel that the choice to only employ ZMapp following a trial with two white Americans is emblematic of the WHO and other organizations’ failure to protect poorer countries from viruses like Ebola in equal measure.

While many in the U.S. are getting needlessly worried that they’re going to be the unlucky one who gets infected with Ebola, this virus is ravaging West Africa in a very real way. Like most world struggles, we can choose not to see it, think about it, and to center our concern around ourselves, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Last week, CNN’s Harriet A. Washington called for increased efforts to supply these African countries with unapproved, but potentially life-saving drugs.

No health worker wants to intentionally deprive Africans of a needed drug. But informal medical networks, which Africans lack, connect well-to-do Westerners with information and drugs. In addition, the pharmaceutical industry has a history of declining to test medications for diseases of the tropical world, most of whose inhabitants cannot afford high prices… If possible, it should be distributed within clinical trials to determine the safety and efficiency of the medications. Many people assume this requires withholding medications in a control group, but this is not necessarily the case. Experts should and can mount a well-designed study that permits early access to the medication to all who need it.

This is another area where Outbreak proves to be eerily realistic. The movie opens with a sequence of an African village being decimated by a bomb, in a covert effort to prevent Matoba from spreading. Once more, this is all very is over the top, but it hits home later when Hoffman and company show up in Africa again to investigate a new upsurge of Matoba. The scene is gruesome, and the movie treats the infected village pretty shabbily. This seems intentional though, callous as it is from a narrative perspective. Matoba only becomes a major concern for the military and the CDC when it arrives in America.

Although a subplot revolving around the government’s desire to turn Matoba into a biological weapon is never fully realized, that the film fails to delve into a worthy investigation of the degrading conditions viruses like Ebola have on developing nations reflects U.S. policy on the matter. Which is to say that once a virus reaches home, then it becomes a priority, not before. Moreover, this attitude is doubly apropos when considering American citizens’ views of Ebola; how many of the tweets being sent out are concerned with the victims in Africa?

But the final truth of Outbreak is that while proficient in getting people justifiably terrified by the effects of Ebola, the chances of anyone (most likely Westerners) watching the film contacting the virus remain extremely slim. Despite salacious headlines like “This is the worst Ebola outbreak in history. Here’s why you should be worried,” courtesy of the Washington Post, your actual level of worry should be limited.

Olga Khazan of The Atlantic spelled it out thusly: “Let’s get one thing straight: You are not going to get Ebola… There are airport workers whose job it is to identify passengers who have flu-like symptoms and quarantine them immediately. And the disease is only spread through contact with bodily fluids, so there’s little chance that even the unlucky seat-mate of the Ebola flyer would catch it.”

Nevertheless, the core aspects of Ebola are scary. After making it clear that you won’t get Ebola, Khazan elaborates on what would happen if you did get Ebola. Worst of all? Even if you manage to escape the virus’s various grotesqueries, you’re not out of the woods, Khazan notes that, “The effects of Ebola can linger: You might have memory problems and other health issues for up to a year after the fact.”

Ebola and Outbreak aside, a virus is still a force unlike any other on the planet. The New Yorker’s Michael Specter sums this up most efficiently, quipping, “Ebola won’t kill us all, but something else might.”

So calm down about Ebola. If a virus is going to legitimately threaten your life, the last thing you’ll be doing is tweeting about it.

Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture. 

Photo via Outbreak/YouTube

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*First Published: Aug 13, 2014, 10:30 am