“Our nation is gripped with fear,” declares news anchor Tom Brokaw (a mannered impersonation by Harry Hamlin) as anthrax-laced letters are sent to media outlets, including NBC, in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Office workers and unsuspecting postal employees from Florida to the Northeast are among the early victims of the airborne menace.
I remember the panic well. At the time, our offices occupied the same midtown Manhattan building as the New York Post, which received one of the poisoned envelopes.
Unfortunately, National Geographic’s six-hour (over three nights) procedural docudrama The Hot Zone: Anthrax rarely works up more than a lukewarm head of tension as it depicts the dogged investigation by FBI agents who tend to talk in terse headline-speak. “We don’t need just the smoking gun. We need the bullet,” barks Dylan Baker as an FBI bureaucrat particularly prone to cliché.
Lacking the in-depth and wrenching personal subplots that might have brought the terror home, the way Hulu’s exceptional Dopesick series humanizes the opioid crisis, this didactic by-the-books account feels like the longest-ever episode of FBI. Its hero is the lead agent of Operation “Amerithrax,” microbiologist Matthew Ryker (Hawaii Five-0’s Daniel Dae Kim), who effects a flat Dragnet-like cadence.
Ryker’s most interesting characteristic is the trauma he suffered as an eyewitness to the fiery attack on the Pentagon, which the filmmakers exploit repeatedly. Once he’s paired with the spunkier counterterrorism profiler Dani Toretti (Dawn Olivieri), the mission begins to heat up and develop an iota of personality.
But Anthrax only truly comes alive when the focus turns to a more colorful microbiologist, Dr. Bruce Ivins (a manic Tony Goldwyn), an anthrax expert at USAMRIID (the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases). He fancies himself the hero of this story, and his inflated sense of self-importance is laced with a disturbing undercurrent of paranoia and delusion that sends him down some very dark rabbit holes. (Where Bruce is headed is something of a spoiler, but easily referenced on Google should you be tempted.)
More effective as a late-blooming psychological thriller than as a routine whodunit, this series is the opposite of escapism for a world still dealing with the effects of COVID-19.
The Hot Zone: Anthrax, Limited Series Premiere, Sunday–Tuesday, November 28–30, 9/8c, National Geographic