Us vs. Us: The Imagined Communities in Outbreak

National ideology has many different facets, but conceptually it is imagined as limited because, according to Benedict Anderson, even the largest “Nation” has boundaries that might lie within other nations. It is the difference between a nation and a community, the difference between comradeship and unity. This difference is emphasized in movies like Outbreak (1995) in the imagined communities of the common American people and the community of the Army and government. Though both are meant to be of the same country and the same “community”, they are subtly fighting each other to both stay alive and destroy the true enemy: the fictional Motaba virus. The film seems to be a comment on the relationships between a country and its government, on the trust they have in each other and in the community between them – being an American through and through, no matter what level you are at.

imagesOne of the points that Outbreak emphasizes throughout the movie is the fragile and yet required trust between the government, army, and the citizens of America, and how that trust can be violated in times of danger and fear. Anderson points out that “members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson 911), an idea that echoes throughout the movie. The army that storms into the infected town of Cedar Creek is full of American men and women who know that the people they are trying to help (and later deciding to eliminate) are American people as well, and that makes their duty harder, even if they have no personal connection. the infected people of the two know that the soldiers are of their own country, but their wall of silence (meant to avoid panic) causes them to doubt that they are there for any good purpose. During the film, General Ford (played by Morgan Freeman) is trying to argue with his superior against the “Clean Sweep” procedure – blowing up the infected town to prevent further spread of the virus – and he says that “these people are Americans,”, to which General McClintock (Donald Sutherland) states “2,600 dead or dying Americans. These people are casualties of war. “ This movie speaks to the point where the imagined community idea is broken – to where even members of the same country stop thinking of each other as fellows, but instead as the enemy or dead community members – and that moment is the meeting point of the nation and the state. hqdefaultThe citizens of Cedar Creek are in fear of not only the virus, but of the arming coming in and restraining them, arresting them, even, at one point, shooting them if they attempt to leave the quarantine zone. They continually ask “Why are you doing this to us?” because they are given no information, further severing the bond they have with their own country and protection. The point is that even though there is an imagined community between these people, this bond of “being American” is tested through danger and fear, speaking volumes about the boundaries between Americans within their own country. It is not about being afraid of an enemy, it is about being afraid of each other.

imagesAnother facet to the imagined community demonstrated in Outbreak is the idea of myth presented by Roland Barthes – in this case, the myth of the American community and bond. He states that myth is a form of communication, that it is not an object or concept but a form of signification. The connection between Americans is an imagined form of relationship, something that (theoretically) binds all Americans together as a signifier of the imaginary tributes of “American-ness”. In this film, the myth of American camaraderie is presented as a case both for the destruction of Cedar Creek to destroy the virus, and ultimately what the protagonist Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) uses to prevent the town from being bombed. Earlier in the film, the White House holds a metting to determine what should be done about Cedar Creek when early projections show that, if the virus were to spread, it would be all across the country within forty-eight hours. The Chief of Staff stands up and makes a speech about how the Constitution of the United States does not say anything about blowing up innocent Americans, but it does say ‘no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process’, and therefore if they decide to go through with Operation: Clean Sweep, they need to remember something. He throws photos of the dead and dying citizens of Cedar Creek on the table and says “Those are not statistics, ladies and gentlemen. They are flesh and blood! And I want you to burn those into your memories! Because those images should haunt us until the day we die!” The government uses the idea of Americans being connected to emphasis that to save the many, you must look away from others, and they should be remembered if their worth as Americans is outweighed by worth of the rest of the country. movies-outbreak-dustin-hoffmanThis same play on the American spirit ad camaraderie of the nation is used at the ending climax, when Daniels places himself in the way of the aircraft carrying the bomb. He pleads with them, saying “The people you are going to bomb are not the enemy…If you manipulate the truth, the president, the country, the Constitution, then it’s not just the town you’re killing, it’s a big piece of them American soul”. This plays into Barthes’ argument about signifiers and the signified – for “For what we grasp is not at all one term after the other, but the correlation which unites them: there are, therefore, the signifier, the signified, and the sign” (Barthes 263). Cedar Creek becomes not just a town of Americans, but the entire idea of being an American altogether – loyalty, freedom, protection. By not dropping the bomb on the town Daniels has created a signified myth of being an American and the idea that Americans should protect their own. This imagined community between Americans is what ends up swaying the pilots of the bomber to drop the bomb over the water, saving the town and ending the film on the happier note that Americans stand together.

The relationships between Americans are very real – there is a certain amount of trust and camaraderie between citizens based on the idea that we are all American, we all believe and stand for the same things. Outbreak, however, delves into those imagined communities between the people who know all the secrets and the people who rely on them to use those secrets wisely, for the good of all. Within this imagined community, fear breeds, but the community is also what ultimately ties the characters (and the country) back together. Through the concepts of imagined community and myth, the creators of Outbreak show the relationships between a country and its people and the troubles it may bring, as well as what it can solve.

Works Cited: 

Anderson, Benedict. “Imagined Communities.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. 2011. Pages 910-914. Book.

Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” Mythologies. January 1972. Book.


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