Now that Ebola has been loosed upon the land, I thought it would be jolly to have a killer-virus picture for our Saturday movie date. It seems as likely as any a way for the world to end, probably in a fortnight or so. Perhaps that's why recent remakes of franchises once based on more apocalyptic nuclear and space-alien scenarios now root their origins in viral pandemics - see the end of The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes or the ghastly Nicole Kidman take on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. I thought the 2011 Contagion was perfectly fine, but that was more SARS-like. The nearest to an Ebola movie is Wolfgang Petersen's 1995 hit Outbreak, whose eponymous Ebola-esque outbreak starts in the Congo - or Zaire, as it was back then. Shortly after the opening, a real-life Ebola outbreak broke out in Zaire. That's a hell of a promotional tie-in:
Outbreak's killer virus is called Lambada or Macarena or some such, and was discovered in the African jungle in 1967 by two duplicitous US Army officers Donald Sutherland (inevitably) and Morgan Freeman (rather less inevitably, but before his screen persona decayed into that picture-killing Godlier-than-God Godliness). They destroy the camp and cover the whole thing up. Twenty-eight years later, it's back - and this time it's headed for America. An employee at a holding facility gets infected and goes to California, where he infects someone else, and then flies to Boston, where he infects someone else... If that sounds boringly familiar, well, unlike the news bulletins, there's no Tom Frieden character popping up every 20 minutes to reassure you that none of this could ever happen because he's got these all-powerful "Protocols".
Anyway, within hours, this Macarena virus reduces its victims to gibbering wrecks, dripping sweat, splattered with lesions and oozing pustules, begging for a merciful release. But then what Dustin Hoffman performance doesn't have that effect? I've always found Hoffman almost impossible to watch: from Midnight Cowboy to Rain Man, all that business, all that making a meal over everything, all that acting. The director John Schlesinger once told me that the studio wanted Sammy Davis Jnr for Midnight Cowboy, as if this was self-evidently ridiculous. But, as actors go, I'd take Sam over Dustin any day. For all the show he puts on, a Hoffman performance only works when he's playing what the British would call a complete prat. It's famously said of Marathon Man that everyone who sees it is rooting for the Nazi dentist. But Hoffman was only marginally less unlikeable in The Graduate and, indeed, in Tootsie. He does unlikeable very well. Here he plays a military virologist working for Usamriid - that's a government acronym, not the sound you make as you're choking on your own infected vomit. In the first scene, he essays some comedy, desperate to get a non-running joke about his dogs off its knees. I think he was aiming for that goofily earnest Mel Gibson* auto-banter that was all the rage back then, but Hoffman doing comedy is, as they say, no laughing matter: he finds it hard to throw away lines; they come at you with weights attached. So wisely he abandons the comedy and gets back to being unlikeable.
As a virus troubleshooter for the US Army, he is, naturally, a maverick. So, whenever the script gets to anything of even moderate seriousness, Hoffman puts on his super-serious expression, jutting out his jaw and letting his mouth go lop-sided. Then he delivers the line, which is usually something along the lines of 'We got a f**kin' war on our hands' or 'Get your f**kin' ass in gear.'
The gear in which Hoffman's ass is ensconced for much of the picture is an orange anti-contamination suit. His ex-wife, a CDC scientist played by Rene Russo (Clint's chick from In The Line Of Fire), has a matching suit. They pass the film scowling and bickering at each other through visors. Is it, you wonder idly, some sort of metaphor for safe sex? Alas, no. Outbreak's killer virus lacks the symbolism of Aids. A behavioral epidemic preys on our weaknesses, seizing those moments when our need for sex or drugs overwhelms our judgment. The Macarena or Lambada virus is much weaker dramatically. There's no choice; in nothing flat, the fast-mutating virus is airborne; you just get it. It's as arbitrary as acne, although not as visually horrifying: there are some things even film stars won't do. Sportingly, Rene Russo contracts the virus, but it's hard to spot because, in striking contrast to the other victims, even in its throes she just gets a bit pasty faced — like the 'before' bit of a moisturizer ad for Vogue. Still, it's disturbing: this killer virus is so destructive it's reduced Miss Russo from movie star to, well, just a regular looking woman without her face on.
Hollywood isn't short of good ideas but it hems them in with the same old phoney-baloney: the maverick scientist, the broken marriage, the life expectancy of each character determined by casting, Donald Sutherland as the villain. Only the last ought to be mandatory. So the virus attacks Cedar Creek, a Californian community that looks as if it's straight out of the original Fifties Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Sutherland, now a Machiavellian general, has come up with a brilliant wheeze to save the nation from being wiped out: he wants to bomb the town and all its townsfolk to kingdom come to stop the disease spreading, and, amazingly, he persuades the President to go along with it. Even in the Clinton era, never mind that of the golfer-in-chief, this executive decisiveness is pretty implausible. But in this picture, if you stop to think about anything too long, it's all implausible. For example, the virus is so lethal in its attack on your kidneys and pancreas that it leaves your insides "liquidized". So how then does the serum work? A couple of shots intravenously and suddenly these guys are back on their feet.
By now, though, the film is hitting its irresistible stride. Hoffman is pitched into a tense race against time to save the town of Cedar Creek and the life of his ex-wife. There's a glorious, exhilarating helicopter chase straight out of Top Gun, but with the added attraction of a white-headed capuchin monkey, whose bare pink bottom proves such an easy target for the stun dart. Perhaps that's the lesson of the film: the poor monkey didn't get his ass in any gear at all.
*Mel Gibson, in touch with his feminine side, makes an appearance in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, now available at all good bookstores. In the US, you can pick it up from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and other retailers. In Canada, it's available at Indigo-Chapters, Amazon, McNally-Robinson and major bookstores from Nanaimo to Nunavut.