Going Viral: 'The Hot Zone' Tries to Do for Ebola What 'Chernobyl' Did for Nuclear Meltdowns

Julianna Margulies isn't convincing as an army pathologist in National Geographic's 'The Hot Zone,' but the show has an important message to tell

Julianna Margulies in "The Hot Zone."
© National Geographic

“He leans over, head on his knees, and brings up an incredible quantity of blood from his stomach and spills it onto the floor with a gasping groan. … Then comes a sound like a bedsheet being torn in half, which is the sound of his bowels opening at the sphincter and venting blood.”

Oh, sorry, didn’t know you were eating. That quote is from Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone,” his 1994 nonfiction book about Ebola that focuses on the only known outbreak in the United States. Reading it is guaranteed to have you ordering your own Hazmat suit and regarding any coughing or heavily perspiring person with the utmost suspicion. The book is also the source for a new National Geographic six-part thriller, and it’s fair to say the project hasn’t enjoyed the best of luck over the years.

Producer Lynda Obst bought the film rights to Preston’s original October 1992 New Yorker article “Crisis in the Hot Zone” for $100,000 back in 1993, hiring James V. Hart (fresh at the time off “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which highlights how old this project is) to pen the script. Ridley Scott was brought on board to direct, while Jodie Foster and Robert Redford both flirted with the project – the latter reportedly wanting more screen time and a romantic subplot with Foster’s character, which perhaps explains why she swiftly exited the movie.

These artistic differences stalled the project, but it was the presence of a rival virus movie at another film studio, “Outbreak,” that eventually killed off the first incarnation of “Hot Zone.” There are only two things you need to know about Wolfgang Petersen’s 1995 blockbuster: The monkey in it outacts everyone else and went on to play Marcel in “Friends”; and Dustin Hoffman brought in Maya Angelou to spruce up some of his dialogue — but you’d never guess. It’s a dreadful movie, and could have only gotten dumber if it had cast Pauly Shore as a scientist.

Obst continued to try getting her movie off the ground over the years, but despite Preston’s book becoming a best-seller, she was stymied by the shadow of the crappy “Outbreak” (which Preston wonderfully described as “Curious George Gets the Andromeda Strain”). Eventually, in 2013, she started developing “Hot Zone” as a TV miniseries, with Fox as a partner. Even that proved difficult, though, and it was only when Nat Geo stepped in that it finally went into production last year.

Yet, wouldn’t you just know it, after two painstaking decades in development, “The Hot Zone” debuts just a couple of weeks after “Chernobyl,” a far superior drama about another apocalyptic event.

Where the latter stuns with its painstaking authenticity, dedication to depicting a crumbling communist system scrambling to bury the truth, and subtle use of a historic tragedy to foreshadow a looming modern tragedy also about denial, the former never escapes its roots as either a popcorn movie or commercial TV series. It is a well-intentioned show that wears its heart on its Hazmat sleeve, and while it is “inspired by true events” it is far from inspired.

But – and this “but” is so big Sir Mix-a-Lot would surely approve – as long as you can stomach lines like “If you’re not scared, you shouldn’t be in [biosafety] Level Four: Fear keeps you sharp,” “Hot Zone” is still worth four and a half hours of your time as a primer on the Ebola virus. (If you only have time for one “entertainment” about a killer virus, though, you should probably go with Steven Soderbergh’s messy but gripping 2011 drama “Contagion.”)

Julianna Margulies and Topher Grace in "The Hot Zone."
© National Geographic

The monster

Julianna Margulies stars here as Dr. Nancy Jaax, who sounds like the stuff of a writers’ workshop but is based on a former Kansas beauty queen, martial artist, veterinary surgeon and leading pathologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, in Washington. (Fun fact: The facility used to research offensive biological weapons until a certain President Richard Nixon signed an executive order banning such developments in 1969.)

Jaax and her husband Jerry (Noah Emmerich from “The Americans”) both work at the base, where she is an authority on filoviruses — aka Ebola Zaire, Ebola Sudan and Marburg, three level-four viruses for which there is no vaccine or cure, and which kill “humans with swift efficiency and with a devastating range of effects,” as Preston writes in his book.

This is Margulies’ biggest role since “The Good Wife,” but there’s something about her performance that fails to fully convince. Maybe it’s because she has made no effort to physically resemble her character. Or maybe it’s because watching the actor’s strangely ageless features, I was constantly reminded of the effect Ebola has on monkeys’ faces: It renders them blank by destroying the part of the brain that controls facial expression.

Nancy Jaax’s mentor is an acerbic character called Wade Carter (Liam Cunningham), a composite of several leading “pathogen chasers,” including Karl Johnson, who identified the Ebola strain and chose to name it after the African river near where it originated. This is the “Robert Redford character” from the initial draft of the film, but here he serves merely as glorified public warning system against the horrors of Ebola (which he constantly refers to as “the monster”).

The show intercuts between his early experiences tracking the virus in 1976 Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the real-life incident in the fall of 1989 when Ebola reached American shores — at a wild monkey quarantine facility in Reston, Virginia, just 35 kilometers (22 miles) west of D.C.

I had plenty of issues with “The Hot Zone,” principally its adherence to the Scriptwriting 101 belief that “drama is conflict,” which proliferates at such an alarming rate that the Ebola virus itself would be impressed. We get manufactured (and unnecessary) work tensions between the Jaaxes; artificially created rivalry between Nancy Jaax and a civilian pathologist in her lab who I guess we could call an anti-Jaaxer (a miscast Topher Grace, looking like he wandered in mistakenly from the set of “That ’70s Show”); and a long-simmering feud between Carter and a former colleague (James D’Arcy) based on their formative experiences hunting the virus in Africa.

While the need to up the ante in a show in which the drama is front-loaded (the real-life “third act” was rather anticlimactic) is understandable, I still wish they would have cared a little less about the thriller element and a little more about the ethical and procedural battles that come with facing a killer disease on your own doorstep when you are woefully underprepared.

Another problem is that the show features lots of seemingly preposterous incidents – yet most of them, particularly in Washington, did really happen. A good rule of thumb to follow is that most of the character conflict is invented, but the implausible-sounding events are real. That’s worth bearing in mind [SPOILERS] when a monkey escapes from its cage as soldiers are trying to sedate it (that scene plays out as a kind of homage to a famous chase sequence onboard the Nostromo in “Alien” — reminding us that Ridley Scott is on board here as executive director). Then there’s a far-fetched subplot involving Topher Grace’s character and a rookie scientist that would have been laughable if it hadn’t actually happened in real life.

So, why watch “The Hot Zone” despite all its obvious flaws? The end captions provide a reason, as they reveal that there is currently an Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The caption quotes the death toll as 500, but since the show wrapped last year that number has now risen to 1,208 victims (as of May 29). When a virus has the potential to be such a “slate wiper” for humanity, killing 90 percent of those who catch it, it is worth raising the alarm as loudly as possible (especially with a jackass in the White House who might regard a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget as nonessential). As the end credits to Soderbergh’s “Contagion” warn, when it comes to a deadly virus proliferating around the world: “It’s not if, but when.”