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ABC Spreads The Germ of A Disturbing 'Bird Flu'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

ABC's "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America" is just what the doctor ordered -- Dr. Frankenstein, that is. Who else would find it entertaining to watch 25 million people drop dead as the result of a fanciful worldwide plague?

No one can say the film, airing tonight on Channel 7, isn't topical. The producers hired a big-time expert on monstrous disease to make sure its vision of a global nightmare is plausible. A disclaimer notes, "This film is a fictional examination of the question, 'What if?,' " but the docudrama style carries an aura of awful, if not awesome, authority.

It's a question that isn't just being asked by alarmist TV movies. According to published reports, a White House study on pandemic flu envisions a nation overtaken by "social and economic chaos" if the bird-flu virus should mutate into an influenza that can be passed from human to human and country to country.

Not overlooking practical aspects, The Washington Post says the report not only "assumes" as many as 2 million dead in the United States alone, but also a 40 percent rate of "workforce absenteeism." Good heavens! Maybe preparedness demands that we all start staying home, oh, let's say, this morning. Just to be on the safe side.

"Fatal Contact" argues persuasively that mass suffering, death and, of course, workforce absenteeism are anything but unimaginable; after all, the producers imagined them and put them on film. ABC then irresponsibly slotted the frightening movie at 8, early enough to scare the kiddies right out of their wits.

The film opens with a poultry roundup in Guangdong, China. Workers in protective garb destroy dozens of the little cluckers in the hopes of preventing the spread of whatever they've got. From there, the movie hops all over the world, with stops in Hong Kong, New York, Washington, Atlanta and Angola -- except that all those places are really either New Zealand or Australia, where "Fatal" was filmed.

In Richmond, a husband returning from a trip abroad hugs his wife. Uh-oh! Shouldn't-a done that! He's spreading a germ that we've seen travel via everything from handshake to cough to smooch to martini olive -- all these contacts and many others eventually arranged into a checkerboard screen filled with very infectious images.

The poor chap in Richmond, unaware he's ill, goes to his son's Little League game and shakes hands with a friend. He might as well have shot the guy in the head, at least according to the movie's depiction of the flu's contagiousness. And as the illness spreads, so do rioting, looting, panic and hysteria.

At least it won't be dull.

Every movie about a medical crisis has to have a medical hero -- if possible, a superwoman in a white smock and stern spectacles who tries to straighten out all the misguided, mixed-up men. In "Fatal Contact" it's Joely Richardson ("Nip/Tuck") as Dr. Iris Varnack, an official of the Epidemic Intelligence Service. She logs many a mile chasing chicken flu and arguing with those so blind (not literally) they cannot see -- mostly other medical authorities and pesky politicians.

Singled out as particularly wrongheaded is Mike Newsome, the (fictitious) governor of Virginia, played with stern stubbornness by Scott Cohen. Newsome decides that the best prevention is to quarantine everybody in the state, and he rushes his own family and staff to a germ-proof shelter. It's important, he explains, that there be "continuity of leadership" if the outbreak reaches the pandemic level.

One can see his point. Heaven knows people wouldn't know what to do without bureaucrats to guide them.

Later, when a vaccine is finally developed, those in charge decide that "essential medical personnel" should be first to get it -- in other words, them. That's somewhat reminiscent of the bureaucrats in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," who decide it would be best for the country if they all took refuge in an underground shelter stocked with wine and women, if not song, and wait out the nuclear war raging above.

Plagues, of course, are not something to be made light of, but the movie is so brutally relentless in depicting the effects of the disease -- replete with shots of mass graves, blood-soaked human organs and "CSI''-like close-ups of germs -- that it becomes more numbing than alarming. It's a cautionary tale with no recommendations on what precautions to take.

There's no time to develop any of the characters. Dr. Varnack marches around issuing warnings, advice and recommendations but doesn't seem to have a life. The mutated virus, H5 in the film, is compared to the Spanish Flu of 1918, believed responsible for up to 100 million deaths. As the movie ends (semi-spoiler alert), there's nary a peep of hope in sight.

"Fatal Contact," written by Ron McGee and directed by Richard Pearce, is horrific but dubiously useful. And as insensitive as it might sound, the death tolls and harrowing developments begin to seem repetitious and prosaic. Then there are the less-than-hideous side effects, like a raging coffee shortage in New York. The horror, the horror!

For reasons not made clear but covered by the term "chaos," looters grow violent, and teams of hooligans set trucks on fire. Society is breaking down, people are behaving like animals and gas is probably up to 100 bucks a gallon.

Despite the seeming urgency of the subject matter, I think I'd skip the movie if I hadn't already seen it -- maybe opting to wait for the Broadway musical.

So this is how the world ends -- not with a bang or a whimper, but a bluck-bluck-bluck. Thank goodness Colonel Sanders didn't live to see it.

Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America (two hours) airs tonight at 8 on Channel 7.

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