Tuesday, September 06, 2022

The Anthrax Attacks, on Netflix

According to the U.S. Postal Service creed: “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” However, a domestic terror campaign shut down the mail processing facility in Brentwood, Maryland. That aspect of the chaotic sequence of events is what most concern’s Dan Krauss’s documentary, The Anthrax Attacks, which premieres Thursday on Netflix.

The nation was already unnerved by the September 11
th terror attacks when the first Anthrax spores struck their target. It was a confused time, but the FBI mobilized significant resources to capture the perpetrator. However, their investigation was somewhat compromised, because they were being advised by the man they were hunting, USAMRIID researcher, Dr. Bruce Ivins. At least he is the presumed Anthrax weaponizer.

In many ways, the epic investigation was unprecedented, so much of the criticism Krauss airs seems like cheap Monday morning quarterbacking. Yes, the FBI Director and Attorney General kept constant tabs on the investigation. Otherwise, they easily could have been lambasted for negligent disinterest, given the extraordinary circumstances.

Likewise, the amount of time it took fully test and disinfect the Brentwood facility is presented as an unconscionable scandal, but the Feds were in a damned-if-they-did-damned-if-they-didn’t situation. Life was much more dependent on the U.S. Mail in 2001, especially for things like Social Security checks, utility payments, and small business invoicing. Honestly, it is as easy to imagine poor grannies complaining on-camera how they nearly starved, because they couldn’t get their social security. Plus, there was that institutional “neither snow nor rain” ethos that mail delivery must remain on schedule.

Instead of scoring polarizing political points, the doc should have focused more on lessons to apply for future bio-attacks.
 The question should be what procedures and policies should be adopted, based on what we now know?

Unfortunately, the film does not focus on the law enforcement officials who worked the case. Instead, the dominant voice is that of Ivins, portrayed by Clark Gregg in dramatic readings and a handful of recreations. Yet, Tony Goldwyn already pretty much definitively portrayed Ivins in
Hot Zone: Anthrax, in a full dramatic context, so it is hard to see what Gregg’s appearances (drawn from Ivins’ emails and interview transcripts) really add to our understanding.

In fact,
Hot Zone much more successfully conveys the tenor of those edgy times and the exhausting efforts that went into the Federal manhunt. Regrettably, Krauss’s doc is transparently political in its analysis, rather than strategic or scientific. Its hybrid elements are also questionable. The seriousness of the attacks deserves a more rigorous study. Until then, viewers will get more out of the Nat Geo dramatic series than the disappointing The Anthrax Attacks, which starts streaming Thursday (9/8) on Netflix.