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Review: ‘The Hot Zone,’ flaws and all, captures a near-catastrophic epidemic

Review: ‘The Hot Zone,’ flaws and all, captures a near-catastrophic epidemic
Dr. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies) works in her pathology lab in a scene from the National Geographic biohazard drama, "The Hot Zone." (Amanda Matlovich / National Geographic)

Riding the subway, picking up a pencil or purchasing a pack of gum portend human catastrophe in National Geographic’s “The Hot Zone,” a six-part biohazard thriller that will have you reaching for the hand sanitizer if not a hazmat suit.

The miniseries, which premieres Monday and airs over three consecutive nights, follows a team of 1980s scientists who discover a new mutation of the Ebola virus in a lab just 20 minutes outside of Washington, D.C.

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The deadly pathogen has a 90% mortality rate, there’s no known cure and the clock is ticking to identify its carriers, contain the disease and find an antidote.

Based on the bestseller by Richard Preston and influenced by true events, “The Hot Zone” highlights the heroic role scientists played in the race against a fatal epidemic.

At the center of unraveling this lethal riddle is veterinarian and chief pathologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies), whom like the real-life figure the character is based upon, is key to winning the battle.

Centers for Disease Control researcher Wade Carter (Liam Cunningham) represents institutional knowledge on how to grapple with the Ebola demon. The story moves between their two respective timelines — 1989 Virginia and 1976 Zaire — as it tracks Ebola’s origins and spread from the jungles of Africa to America’s capital. All it takes is one vomiting airline passenger and a sick lab monkey or three.

Each hour-long episode, however, suffers from another sort of plague: ill-timed and clunky dialogue that distracts from the sheer urgency of the situation. When the otherwise persuasive Carter explains to a doubter why he must risk his life to conquer Ebola, he offers this forgettable argument: “We need to observe it. Get inside its head.”

When Carter journeys to an African village where there have been reports of the disease, his nervous junior researcher quips: “No one would be happier than me to just run into some boring old flu. … Well, maybe my mom.” Not the best setup for the forthcoming scenes of dead pregnant women, blood-soaked bedding and pox-ravaged nuns.

There’s also the issue of repetition. Viewers learn over and over that U.S. authorities have never contained anything like this on our own soil. “I want to stick to procedures,” says one by-the-book researcher. “If you find any, let me know,” says another. There is no protocol, we’re reminded by several more panic-stricken responders over each hour-long episode. You mean it’s unprecedented? Like never happened before?!

The pacing of each installment, however, is brisk despite a great deal of necessary scientific and medical background. Accounts of how the virus developed in the jungles of Africa, was first discovered domestically in Virginia, which agencies were involved and the frantic reaction of a public already rocked by the AIDS crisis are interspersed with anecdotes of the how easily the disease is spread. And it’s a graphic journey.

If squeamish, you should know now that “The Hot Zone” is generous when it comes to projectile vomiting: on planes, in office hallways, hospital rooms and huts across Zaire. There are also festering body blisters, oozing blood clots, profuse fever sweats and grisly monkey autopsies.

We’d expect no less from a “Level 4 hot agent.” Virologist Peter Jahrling (Topher Grace) is one of the unfortunate fellows who underestimated Lt. Col. Jaax and her findings, and let’s just say the bespectacled wunderkind isn’t as cocky by Episode 4. If only he’d listened to her.

Convincing Jahrling and all the other dismissive or reticent men from various government agencies isn’t Jaax’s only challenge. She’s torn between her duty to protect humanity and her loyalty to her own family.

Her husband (Noah Emmerich) is furious when he finds out she moved the kids’ baseball gear into the back seat of the car to make room in the trunk for the highly contagious corpses of frozen simians. But there was no time for official transport, she argues.

The gender-specific subdrama is of the era but also speaks to the modern struggles of working women, making it a powerful addition to the already tense narrative.

Plus there’s nothing that spells out impending doom like monkey blood dripping from the trunk of a late-model sedan.

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Though flawed, “The Hot Zone” is an effective, real-life horror story whose key points are hard to brush aside. Ex: One sneeze on a subway, and a million hot particles can be dispersed. Perhaps it’s best to stay home today.

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