Virus films like ‘Outbreak’ and ‘The Hot Zone’ offer serious lessons

Virus, pandemic, and public health movies have rocketed to the top of streaming platforms’ algorithms as people are cooped up at home, social distancing and self-isolating. Politico contributing editor Adam Wren recently spent a weekend binge-watching them.

The 1995 film Outbreak tells the story of Army scientists dealing with an ebola-like virus that threatens to wreak havoc on the U.S., as government officials decide whether or not to bomb a small California town to contain it. 

In Contagion, a fictional respiratory virus called MEV-1 originates in China and spreads throughout the world. It’s the most scientifically accurate and eerily prescient of the three – with a plot remarkably similar to what’s currently happening with COVID-19.

“As I watched that movie, it was hard to separate a lot of the scenes from reality,” Wren says. “It’s difficult to parse where reality begins and where Contagion ends.” 

The Hot Zone is a six-part National Geographic dramatization of the efforts of Army scientists to contain a 1989 Ebola outbreak near Washington, D.C. It’s based on the bestselling 1994 book of the same name by Richard Preston.

After spending the better part of his St. Patrick’s Day weekend immersed in these movies, Wren came away with a handful of lessons.

Congress needs to figure out how to work remotely

In Contagion, a Congressman from Illinois contracts MEV-1 and travels from DC back to his district. Wren says there’s no precedent for Congress to cast ballots electronically, which we’re seeing play out now.

“All of the years ago, we had the impetus for figuring out a way for Congress to work remotely, and yet we never really took action to map out the consequences of that.”

It’s not about man vs. nature, it’s about man vs. bureaucracy

In each one of these movies, Wren says scientists struggle to convince political leaders to embrace the seriousness of these viruses, and how they’ve gripped humankind.

“They are battling with their superiors, their bosses. And so these are really at their heart government movies,” Wren says. “They’re movies about the bureaucracy, and how they operate. And how oftentimes bureaucracy is our greatest enemy in fighting pandemics.”

Let the scientists do the talking

Wren says in other disaster movies (notably, Independence Day), you see the U.S. president play a prominent role – making speeches or climbing into the cockpit of a jet to fight alien invaders. 

But in these virus movies, the president is completely absent.

“Instead, you see scientists. You see the CDC director. You see Army virologists. And so one of the conclusions I took away is that it’s really important in times of pandemics to allow scientists to be the public-facing voice of the government,” Wren says.

“And you’ve seen that in real life in some ways when it comes to the coronavirus with people like Dr. Anthony Fauci becoming this bipartisan source of credibility. And we see the same thing happening in these virus movies.” 

Written and produced by Brian Hardzinski