Maybe there’s something in the air. Thanks to zombies, viral outbreak movies never went away, but straight-forward pandemic productions appear to be seriously flaring up again. There were several doomsday virus projects at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, but by far, the most eagerly anticipated was the premiere of Nat Geo’s The Hot Zone, which screened the first two episodes of the limited series at this year’s festival.
For years, producer Lynda Obst has tried to bring Richard Preston’s reads-like-a-novel nonfiction book to the big screen, but after long periods of dormancy, it finally took hold at National Geographic TV. It is still rather distressing to think a mysterious strain of ebolavirus broke out in Reston, Virginia a mere thirty years ago. Of course, I’m sure we’re totally more prepared for something like this now, aren’t you?
In fact, there were a few people who were pretty well prepared for this in 1989. Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax was one of them. The veterinary pathologist was comfortable working in Fort Detrick’s ultra-secure bio-lab, but a freak (but non-lethal) mishap will throw her off her stride during the early hours of the outbreak. Jaax was probably Fort Detrick’s leading expert on all things Ebola and Marburg related, but her semi-disgraced mentor, Wade Carter, had more real world experience responding to viral outbreaks than any of else on staff. Unfortunately, his wild man prophecies of doom led to his ouster (for the sake of morale and decorum).
Jaax’s commanding officer is not happy about it, but he agrees to bring Carter back temporarily, due to the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile, Jaax’s arrogant and recklessly irresponsible civilian colleague realizes he might have exposed himself and another researcher to ebola, but he does not immediately come clean. (Is it unfair to point out he spends most of the first episode wearing a Dukakis-Bentsen t-shirt?) Regardless, if someone in an infectious disease lab asks you to smell something, just say no.
There were some interesting points raised at Tribeca’s post-screening discussion panel (featuring Preston, Obst, and co-stars Julianna Margulies and Noah Emmerich and showrunners Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson), but most of the audience probably would have preferred to watch more episodes. The first two (out of six) are highly bingeable. The science and the stakes involved are presented in a clear and understandable manner. Considerable time is devoted in the first episode to the detailed safety measures required to enter the “Hot Zone” lab, but it completely riveting rather than tedious.
Margulies and Emmerich also have quite the compelling on-screen rapport together as the Jaax and her husband, Dr. Jerry Jaax, an Army veterinarian also assigned to Fort Detrick. They are totally convincing as a couple with years of history together that are also keenly aware of the risks of her particular specialty. They also sound credible talking science. Naturally, the great Liam Cunningham steals plenty of scenes as crusty old Carter, who plays him like the kind of jaundiced but decisive maverick you would want to have on the ground during a crisis. The consistently strong ensemble includes Robert Sean Leonard as the slimy director of the infected primate lad and Topher Grace as Jaax’s arrogant and contemptibly contemptuous civilian foil.
Based on the Tribeca panel, it seems like Preston and the scientific community are behind the mini-series, which definitely good to know, but more importantly it is quality television. It is also pretty scary. While imperfect (there are some clumsily didactic attempts to draw parallels with the early days of AIDS public health challenge), it is definitely addictive. In fact, the TV track accounted for some of the best programming at this year’s Tribeca, thanks to the premieres of The Hot Zone, Chernobyl, and I Want My MTV. Highly recommended based on the first two episodes (out of six), The Hot Zone airs May 27th, 28th and 29th, on Nat Geo.