Though I have spent all of my adult life working in various areas related to foreign policy and consider myself a bona fide national security nerd, my secret dream is to have a career as a film critic. What possible better job could there be than to get paid to watch movies and tell people what you think about them? And so, since the New York Times and Washington Post aren’t calling about vacancies in their entertainment sections, I thought I’d take a look at some films about pandemics and see how art does or doesn’t imitate life.
First, a word about methodology. I consulted various lists online for recommended pandemic-related movies. I also crowd-sourced my Facebook friends for recommendations. The universe, depending on how you define “pandemic-related,” is rather large, so I had to narrow the field a bit. I looked for films that dealt with some kind of disease that hits a society recognizable as our own because what I am most interested in is how characters created by Hollywood would cope with that crisis, and how that might differ for good or ill with our own response. I eliminated a lot of post-apocalyptic films because while they pose a lot of interesting moral dilemmas and my family and I love gaming out what we would do in those situations, we’re not there… yet. I also eliminated the entire zombie genre. I should note that World War Z, based on the book by Max Brooks, has a lot of insights and in fact Brooks has become quite an expert on pandemics, even lecturing at West Point. His interview on NPR with Terry Gross is well worth your time. But zombies, while often having their origins in some kind of virus, pose a different set of challenges from ones the CDC might deal with. Finally, a spoiler alert. I recommend watching the movies before you read this and making your own observations. Then compare yours with mine. Let me know if you think Hollywood can or can’t teach us something about the predicament we’re in.
So without further adieu, going in chronological order, roll ’em (see I’ve got the film critic lingo down. Are you listening NYT?).
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, 1971
This classic of the genre is based on the novel by Michael Crichton. In this story, a satellite lands on earth carrying a deadly pathogen that wipes out a small town in New Mexico. Only two people, the town drunk and an infant, miraculously survive. The film is introduced as a sort of pseudo-documentary of a heretofore top secret story of how the government beat the bug. The bulk of the film centers on a team of scientists working in a high-tech government lab created for just this purpose to figure out a way to beat the germ. While the military was in charge during the initial stages, scientists have now been pulled from civilian life to work the problem. As with every film I see with any military element, I had to suspend some of my disbelief regarding the uniform and haircut errors.
The key to defeating the virus, as it turns out, is finding what the drunk and the baby have in common that led to their survival. Along the way, the scientists discover that the pathogen may not have been an inadvertent passenger on the satellite but an effort by the military to retrieve potential biological weapons from space.
Two elements of the film seem relevant to today’s situation. One is that the government in the movie, in contrast to our own, is pretty well prepared when the pathogen arrives. The key scientists in the civilian world have already been identified and are quickly retrieved by the military. The facility the scientists work in has been specifically designed for this eventuality. Much of the film shows the scientists going through extensive decontamination procedures just to get in the place to work. Some background is provided to show that building the facility was not a cheap endeavor, and again, very different from our current experience, there are no resource shortages. The other element which seems to be prescient is the tension between what the scientists recommend and what the politicians order be done. The president never appears on screen but the two forces are embodied in his scientific advisor and his chief of staff, and the tension between them. While the chief of staff openly states his distrust of the scientists and their sometimes contradictory advice, the president is ultimately persuaded to follow their recommended course. The film ends with the head scientist testifying before Congress and leaving us with the question, what do we do next time?
The biggest takeaway I found was preparation. When scientists and doctors were well prepared, things went better. Not just in terms of having sufficient resources and supplies but also knowing how to approach the problem and what questions to ask.
This film features an all-star cast including Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Donald Sutherland, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Rene Russo. The story is very loosely based on the book The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, which tells the true story of a case of an Ebola virus outbreak at an animal lab in Reston, Virginia. In 2019, a non-fiction docudrama that closely adheres to the book aired on the National Geographic channel. But Outbreak is far more fiction than fact and, other than being about an Ebola-like virus and having a monkey play a major role, differs significantly from the book. Considering what really happened in Reston, I’m not sure the film is scarier than actual events.
The film tells the story of a type of hemorrhagic fever, similar to Ebola, which breaks out in a small California town. Note that not all films show us to be lucky with just small towns being hit. In this film, the military is very much in charge from the outset. Dustin Hoffman plays a doctor and colonel working for the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRID) tasked with battling the outbreak and racing for a cure. His ex-wife, played by Russo, who becomes infected, is also a doctor who works at the CDC but she only recently left USAMRID and her marriage to Hoffman. The haircut and uniform errors are less evident in this film, though Gooding plays an Army major scientist who is somehow also an excellent combat helicopter pilot.
In this film, the central tension isn’t so much between scientists and politicians but between scientists and the military. Sutherland plays the senior military officer in charge and like in The Andromeda Strain, this outbreak is not unrelated to a biological warfare effort that he, and Freeman, were intimately involved in. While Hoffman crisscrosses California, in a stolen Army helicopter piloted by Gooding, in search of the monkey host with antibodies for the cure, Sutherland just wants to blow the town up for the greater good. The tension plays out with Freeman as the officer subordinate to Sutherland but senior to Hoffman. Torn between the two perspectives, Freeman must decide which direction to go. After much back and forth, Freeman ultimately backs Hoffman. The film serves to highlight a question that we are asking ourselves today: Which is worse, the disease or the methods we employ to control it? Like in The Andromeda Strain, the government personnel are well prepared and supremely competent. An element that shows up in this film is the reaction of the public to the sometimes heavy-handed efforts by the military to control the outbreak. While we might be upset with those who refuse to social distance today, the townspeople in this film riot and even attack the military and police.
Like Outbreak, this film features some pretty big names. Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Elliot Gould, and Jude Law. This film postulates a worldwide pandemic similar to the flu that has a devastating mortality rate. In a case of life possibly imitating art, we eventually learn that the bug originated with bats, spreading to pigs and then jumping to humans in the so-called “Wet Markets” of China. Paltrow plays patient zero in the US after coming back from a business trip in Asia. Damon plays an ordinary guy married to Paltrow who watches her die along with one of his children. Fishburne and Winslet work for the CDC and seek to track the virus and work on a cure. Gould plays an independent scientist who finds a way to grow the virus in order to develop a vaccine — though in violation of CDC rules, perhaps foreshadowing questions about whether or not our own FDA rules have hindered vaccine or test development. We hear and learn technical terms from Winslet and Fishburne, including Winslet’s detailed explanation of how the R naught number is a measure of how infectious a disease is, and Fishburne’s recommendation of social distancing. A quarantine of Chicago also occurs, though Fishburne uses his inside knowledge to get a loved one out before the gates close.
Jude Law’s character introduces a new element not seen in the other films, but one that we see today: the snake oil salesman with a miracle cure. Law plays a blogger/journalist who cuts a secret deal with a hedge fund and hawks a so-called cure that people panic buy. Today, we see attorneys general sending cease and desist orders to those selling cures for Coronavirus on TV. Similar to both The Andromeda Strain and Outbreak, the government scientists are supremely competent and heroic. Winslet and another female CDC scientist risk their lives to find a vaccine. Also similar to Outbreak, when order begins to break down we see looting and rioting and some of the uglier sides of human behavior. Damon has to chase away his daughter’s boyfriend with a shotgun to avoid exposure.
THE FLU, 2013
This really well done South Korean film tells a similar story to Outbreak, except in this case a flu-like virus hits a suburb of Seoul with a population of half a million people. Again, some blame is leveled at China as the disease is brought by illegals smuggled into the city. Like the monkey in Outbreak, one of the illegals is a carrier with antibodies who must be found to develop a cure. Control measures get progressively harsher as the military seals off the city and then establishes camps to quarantine the sick. Mass graves are dug and the populace begins to panic, which escalates into defiance of the military-enforced quarantine. The heroes of the story are a South Korean doctor and an emergency worker who has a crush on her, who through a series of coincidences, end up having to find and save the doctor’s daughter, who also has the antibodies needed to save the city. This film does a great job of illustrating the tension between measures to control the disease and the economic damage caused to the city. When the scientists first recommend the quarantine, the politicians balk and one even expresses concern over what it will do to his re-election prospects. Similar to Outbreak, a decision must be made to destroy the city or continue to find the cure. While the film is Korean, the ultimate confrontation comes between the president of Korea trying to save his people and an undefined American civilian official standing in for the top US General in South Korea, who can sometimes exercise control of South Korean forces, and who possesses the authority to overrule the president and order the bombing of the city. Ultimately the Korean president wins out and the American official backs down. I have to admit I was a bit frustrated by this element of the story. Though the American military in wartime might exercise command over South Korean forces, the whole notion of an American civilian overruling the Korean president in a situation like this I found a bit unrealistic. But then again, this wasn’t a documentary and it did make for added drama. In Outbreak and this film, and in real life, the virus originated in China, and this one takes a stab at the Americans as well. Nationalism is an ever present reality on screen and in our world.
One other interesting element was the notion of disinformation. The Korean government shuts down the cell phone network fairly early to avoid the spreading of rumors and false information, which make various appearances in the film. This is no small feat in South Korea since the film accurately depicts what I witnessed while stationed there in 2002: everyone over the age of three has a cell phone.
Though I went in chronological order, ending with this film is appropriate. Virus is a dramatization of a real-life outbreak of Nipah virus in Kerala state, India, in 2018. It is not too strong to say that this film should be mandatory viewing for any personnel involved in dealing with any sort of public health crisis. In this film, nearly everybody does everything right, and it is non-fiction. Despite relatively poor resources and hospital conditions, the medical personnel quickly recognize that they have a serious problem and contact the appropriate authorities for help so that they can employ effective control measures. A medical detective is sent out to track down contacts and find the source. CCTV footage and cell phone records are examined to figure out who exactly had contact with whom and who might have been exposed. When more resources are needed, the private sector jumps in to provide additional personal protective gear. When drivers tasked with transporting bodies get nervous, medical personnel calmly explain the risk to them and how vital their work is.
The most powerful performance in the film is the actress Asha Kelunni Nair, who plays the health minister C. K. Prameela. Prameela was based on Minister K. K. Shailaja Teacher, the minister for health who was the senior official in charge of the effort in real life. What is most telling is that she spends most of the movie in silence, sitting in a series of meetings calmly listening to what the scientists and doctors are telling her and only occasionally asking highly pertinent questions. In one instance, the townspeople are complaining that they want to be able to bury their dead rather than cremate them in accordance with the religious tenants of this predominantly Muslim conservative and deeply religious society in this part of India. Some local officials want to let them but Nair, known by her stage name Revathi, asks the scientists if this can be done safely. When one relays how deep burials were safe in another country fighting Nipah and gave the data to prove it, she does let the burials, under strict supervision, go forward.
In every instance when officials are confronted with various challenges, they take a calm, deliberate, and data-driven approach to the problem. In one case, the police want to move a crowd that is blocking a vehicle carrying contaminated bodies, but the officials stop the police from using force. In another instance, some defense ministry personnel and media figures suggest that the virus might be a biological warfare attack. Rather than simply dismissing these conspiracy theories, the doctors, scientists, and investigators search for data and evidence and prove the natural origins of the virus, again in a bat. The film is a dramatization and some poetic license may have been taken with the course of events depicted. Given what we are witnessing today, some might find it hard to believe that in this instance so many people consistently made such good decisions. But the proof is in the pudding. This Nipah outbreak lasted barely a month and led to only 16 deaths.
SO WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Films are reflections of reality, not reality itself, so we cannot see them necessarily as indicative of what to do and not do when confronted with a pandemic. I do think Virus is very instructive, and if it were up to me I’d airlift Kerala’s officials to the US and put them in charge tomorrow. But I still think using the more fictional stories as a mirror can be useful. The biggest takeaway I found was preparation. When scientists and doctors were well prepared, things went better. Not just in terms of having sufficient resources and supplies but also knowing how to approach the problem and what questions to ask. Eisenhower’s adage “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable,” seems true for pandemics.
The other key lesson for me was the similarity between decisions in war and decisions in a pandemic. In most areas of public policy, whether you have chosen the best policy is often not readily apparent. It can take years to see if some policy or program achieved the desired effect. But in war and pandemics, the feedback loop timeline is very short and the consequences of bad choices will be paid for in blood. Leaders will likely always make some bad choices, but they should quickly recognize when they have and pivot as soon as possible. Waiting is costly. And along those lines, leaders need to listen to the experts and know their own limitations. The experts are the ones who can interpret the data and who are familiar with what happened in the past. They won’t always be right, but they are in touch with those feedback loops and know how to realize quickly when they are wrong. In the end, both on screen and probably in the world we live in, it appears that science and data-driven decisions provide the most likely path to success.
Rob Levinson is a retired Lt. Col in the US Air Force with over 20 years of service as an intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served in Latin America, the Middle East and South Korea as an intelligence officer, foreign area officer, commander and politico-military affairs officer.