Imagine how much scarier Jaws would be if Jaws could fly. And was invisible. And if he multiplied at an alarming rate and spread all over America killing every single American, and then set his sights on the rest of the world. It would be incredibly scary, and what's more, you don't have to imagine. This brilliant, terrifying film was released in 1995 and I've seen it about 20 times since. My commitment is testament to the genius of Outbreak – or "the Jaws of the 90s" as its director Wolfgang Petersen called it.
Outbreak is the story of the fictional "Motaba" virus, which is like Ebola only So Much Worse. First you get pale lips, red-rimmed eyes and a sweaty face, which represent horrible flu-like symptoms. Within a few hours you are stumbling around, coughing. Then you go into convulsions. Then your orifices begin to bleed, and bruises appear all over you as the virus LIQUIFIES YOUR INSIDES. Then you die.
To sum up the plot briefly: Dustin Hoffman plays an army epidemiologist who gets called to Africa to investigate an outbreak of a mysterious and deadly haemorrhagic fever. Returning to the US, he warns his bosses Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland that this is the worst virus he's ever seen. But Freeman and Sutherland are covering up a secret: the US military created the Motaba virus as a biological weapon and want to protect it.
And so the virus spreads to America, via a little smuggled monkey. A sequence of hapless characters contract Motaba along the way, dying horrible deaths and infecting their loved ones. Eventually the virus goes airborne in a small Californian town called Cedar Creek. Hoffman is determined to search for the host and find a cure; Freeman and Sutherland want to firebomb Cedar Creek and put this whole messy business behind them. The film becomes a race against two ticking time bombs.
So what makes it great? There's the preposterously stellar cast – Hoffman, Freeman, Sutherland, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jnr. It's the sort of megabucks billing which would normally suggest a turkey (think 2011's New Year's Eve but everyone pulls a great performance here. Hoffman is the browbeaten hero with integrity; Freeman the compromised official with a good heart; Sutherland the evil official with evil eyebrows. Kevin Spacey plays Hoffman's sarky colleague, and we know immediately he's going to die because he's the sort of person who listens to his Walkman too loud while eating cereal bars, and those are the disaster film rules.
In Steven Soderbergh's similar (but inferior) film Contagion, people die fast and clean. Outbreak's deaths are as dramatic and disgusting as possible. All the victims stagger about, reaching up with their pustule-covered hands, crying for mercy. When Kevin Spacey's character is lying in hospital dying and terrified, his grey skin covered in purple lesions, he cries tears of blood. Tears of blood, leaking out of Kevin Spacey's liquefying body. That's what I'm talking about.
Petersen does everything possible to ramp up the tension at all times. Acronyms of medical facilities rattle across the screen. The music is positively Wagnerian, with an occasional African drum interlude. There's a helicopter chase, a bombing, a scene where Hoffman jumps out of a helicopter on to a ship. There are tracking shots all the time, including the legendary tracking shot of a coughed-up blob of contaminated saliva flying into a stranger's mouth. Every time someone coughs near you in a public space you will think about that scene.
That's the thing about Outbreak – for all its silliness, it's genuinely chilling. As Cedar Creek falls, the army orders people to hang white sheets outside their home if they feel ill. The camera tracks down empty streets, pieces of white material fluttering outside every house in the evening sun.
Guinea is currently facing an unprecedented Ebola outbreak, with 78 deaths from 122 cases since January. The EU has pledged €500,000 (£415,000) to try and stop the virus reaching the capital. Senegal has shut its borders. Outbreak remains terrifying, because it could come true. Except that when it does, I don't think Dustin Hoffman is going to be able to save the day.
• More from My guilty pleasure
Vison. Hard work. Team work. These are all qualities that good leaders employ. It’s also how Ben Campbell, the star character in the film “21,” used them to his advantage. Here’s what we can learn from an MIT mastermind about leadership.
Many kids grow up wanting to play for the Red Sox or shooting hoops and making millions for the NBA. In the movie “21” Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess) grew up wanting to go to Harvard Medical School. But…there was just one tiny problem…he didn’t have the $300,000.00 it was going to take to make it happen.
So, Campbell, the most talented student at MIT, uses his mathematical skills (yes…he’s good with numbers), a few fake ID’s and creative disguises to join his brilliant stats professor (played by Kevin Spacey) and five friends in a plot of counting cards to break the Vegas casinos. And…he almost gets by with it.
As it usually goes in the movies, the mastermind plot begins to unravel, and young Ben Campbell has to decide which direction to turn…and in the end, he does the right thing.
I have to say, however, that I observed young Ben using some amazing leadership skills during the plot that we can all learn from. No…I don’t condone counting cards (although I have heard that card counting is actually legal unless you are using an outside device…but maybe some of you who are Blackjack players can set me straight.) However, I am a BIG believer in these leadership skills that Ben applied to winning at the game of Blackjack:
1. Vision: Ben can see, taste and smell that Harvard Medical School ride. He keeps this vision front and center through both the highs and the lows.
2. Hard Work and Drive: Ben studies, reads and pours himself into the game of counting cards. He does not want to just learn the skill…he wants to be the best!
3. When you make the rules, you change the game: Ben and his teammates made the rules, so they change the game of Blackjack. In leadership, you have the opportunity to change the rules (legally of course) so that you get the results you want. If you are leading your organization by worn out rules, there is a good chance you are probably getting the pants beat off you by your competition.
4. Team Work: The game of counting cards is a team sport, and Ben plays the team according to the rules spelled out by the team. He watches his teams’ signals (Folded arms = Table’s Hot) listens to their language (the word sweet means the count’s at 16) and follows the system to build team chemistry.
5. Risk: Ben does something that most people don’t. He takes risk after risk by accounting for variable change. Brilliant!
6. Calm and Composure: Even when the pressure’s on, Ben stays as cool as a cucumber…quiet, calm and quite composed.
7. Playing a System: In the movie “21”, Professor Micky Rosa (played by Spacey) makes it very clear to the team that they are not “gambling” but that they are counting cards…a methodical system that works over and over again.
As the plot begins to unravel, young Ben Campbell does the right thing (you’ll need to watch the movie to find out what that is,), and he learns these important leadership lessons:
1. Quick fixes almost always don’t’ last. The quick solutions almost always end in disaster.
2. Don’t justify your actions when you know they’re crossing a line! Be very careful about saying “I’m only going to do this negative action one time or until x happens.” Before you know it…you’re hooked!
3. Pay attention to your gut. Ben knew early on in the process that something was not sitting well about this whole scheme, but as with all humans, he gets lured in by the thought of wealth, fame, the hot girl and the thrill.
4. When you create rules that you know are not on the up and up, watch out! The system’ll get you every time!
5. When you become so engrossed in your work that you ignore what’s going on in the periphery of your life, there will be a cost to pay. Ben loses a lifetime opportunity in his quest for money, AND he almost loses his closest friends.
6. Let integrity guide your decision making. In the end, living in integrity and doing the right thing can bring you the greatest rewards in life.
I highly recommend this movie! I watched it two times in 24 hours, and I rarely watch movies two times:
Watch the trailer here: