Tag: wolfgang petersen


Outbreak (1995)
★★ / ★★★★

Wolfgang Petersen’s medical thriller “Outbreak” is composed of two movies that do not mesh well. The first one, established during the former half, is a drama that tracks the origin of a new virus and how it comes to make its way to a small California town. The second, which dominates the latter half, is an action picture composed of helicopter chases, men in uniform yelling at each other over radio, and a bomb about to be dropped on the infected. The differences between the two halves are day and night and I wished screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool had chosen one path—the former which is vastly superior than its counterpart—and explored it without fear or shame that the material may not appeal enough to the mainstream audience.

Petersen commands a solid sense of pacing—very necessary because his all-star cast deserve to shine on their own, from Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo as divorced virologists who work for the United States government, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland as generals involved in a cover-up which cost innocent lives decades ago, to Cuba Gooding Jr. and Kevin Spacey as a new recruit and veteran field scientist, respectively. Patrick Dempsey even makes an appearance as a young man directly responsible, albeit inadvertently, for allowing the host animal to infect even more people. The powerhouse cast is juggled with seeming ease and there is genuine chemistry among them, particularly Hoffman and Russo even though I did not care much about the whole subplot regarding the former couple finding that special connection again.

Notice the dialogue. These are strong and forceful, almost always to the point—appropriate given the urgency of the plot. For instance, when the Hoffman and Freeman characters are at odds, there is a convincing push and pull between the two figures. We believe that these men have experienced major medical emergencies prior to this one, an Ebola-like virus from Zaire called Motaba, and so they are willing to fight what they believe is the right thing to do given a set of specific circumstances. At the same time, Drs. Daniels and Ford share a friendship just underneath their professional rapport. It is a joy to watch Hoffman and Freeman clash.

However, as the picture unfolds, the looming threat of politics and power play getting in the way of correctly (and morally) dealing with a public health emergency begins to take over. And as it does, the story, while somewhat sizable in scope, also starts to feel less personal or intimate and more like a standard action-thriller. Uncontrollable virus infection movies are scary precisely because we tend to relate to the confused and terrorized characters on screen who fear for their lives. The fear lies in something unknown but natural, not because of a missile or bomb threat.

And so it is ironic that by introducing two things that could kill—a virus and a bomb—the film is rendered less effective. It is far more unsettling to fear the unknown, something we cannot see or imagine. Bombs, on the other hand, are found in every other action flick. Still, even then the more action-packed chases are not all that impressive because they neither offer nothing new in terms of visuals nor is the action being told from a different or fresh perspective. Thus, the generic action comes across like an awkward appendage in otherwise watchable disaster film.

Das Boot

Boot, Das (1981)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Captain-Lieutenant Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) is assigned by his German superiors to take a crew, most of them young and inexperienced, along with enthusiastic Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), Naval Correspondent whose job is to take photographs and jot down acts of heroism, in a U-boat to attack English ships in hopes of gaining advantage in World War II. Prior to boarding, as the party in a brothel begins to wind down, Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock and Chief Engineer Fritz Grade (Klaus Wennemann) stand by the bar and express their exasperation toward the war, knowing there is a real possibility that they will not be able to make it back.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, once “Das Boot” has successfully pulled me into its powerful gravitational pull, I found it very difficult to veer my attention away from it—even if the running time is well over three hours. Every detail in the boat is so meticulously presented and handled, it is almost like watching a documentary. I was so invested in what was going on, at one point, because the men look so sweaty and grimy, I had an itchy urge to wash my hands.

Unlike most mindless war pictures that seem to glorify violence by immediately diving into the action, the screenplay aims to challenge us on a psychological level. By focusing on small details like a fly hovering over a picture on the wall and a person’s posh eating habits, we feel very claustrophobic only about thirty minutes into it. Images of men literally being constantly at arm’s length of each other add to the tension, claustrophobia, and drama.

Despite the gravity of the plot, the film is not without sublimely executed comedic touches. Lt. Werner taking pictures and asking the crew to pose a certain way in order to get the best angles of their faces and the background alleviates the depression and trepidation that they are going through even for just a little while. It is a masterstroke because by giving us scenes where we can genuinely laugh, they force us to breathe in deeply, refresh our brain cells, so we are prepared for the thrills, suspense, and horrors just waiting around the corner.

The action is unrelenting, particularly of scenes when nothing can be heard except for the ultrasonic detector pulses employed by the English in order to track down submarines hiding below the surface. Sitting in the U-boat with the characters is like hoping for a hungry great white shark to realize that the trail of blood it is following is a false lead.

Aside from the surprising smoothness of the picture’s ability to jump across genres, another surprise is that even though we are watching the story unfold from the German’s perspective, the high-ranking leaders supporting the Nazi cause, the crew feel little to no allegiance to the men in office. They are readily able to put on an act in front of select officials in order to avoid punishment. For them the war is simply about survival.

There is one moving scene in which the captain must decide what to do with English crewmen drowning in an ocean of fire. By highlighting the characters’ humanity, especially their flaws, we do not primarily consider them as Germans working for the Nazis. We perceive them as desperate people who simply hope to make it back home in one piece.

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, what separates “Das Boot” from its contemporaries is that it is an anti-war film but not anti-patriotic. It makes us want to give more value to all soldiers—not just those who we consider to be our own—something that we should be doing in the first place.