Morgan Freeman isn't the star of Outbreak, but his performance, and the legerdemain of director Wolfgang Petersen, make this noteworthy as a character study and a suspense thriller. Petersen, the director of Das Boot, In the Line of Fire, and The Perfect Storm, is an old hand at mixing characterization and action. What is pleasantly surprising about Petersen's direction (and the script by Robert Roy Poole) is how smoothly both manage a shift from a gripping, almost documentary depiction of the horrors of a biological weapon run amuck to a suspenseful, action movie-ish finish. Petersen -- through stars Dustin Hoffman, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Kevin Spacey -- shows the terrible anguish that this plague can wreak on a small California town. For more than an hour, Petersen illuminates the terrible choices the scientists and politicians face as the plague spreads. These sequences are capped by a powerful cameo from an uncredited J.T. Walsh as a furious and highly scrupulous White House chief of staff who forces the people deciding to firebomb the town to look at pictures of the people they will be killing. The action portion of the movie is more melodramatic, and perhaps less successful (Hoffman's banter with Gooding seems forced), but comes as a relief after the gloom of the first hour. As the general who helped launch the weapon and must contain it, Freeman shows the dilemma of a good man caught in a nightmarish web of events.