In a timely limited series that depicts the plight and eventual triumph over a national threat, The Hot Zone: Anthrax takes place in 2001, just weeks after 9/11, when the United States was rocked by another deadly act of terrorism. Letters containing anthrax were sent to unsuspecting victims in Florida, Washington, D.C., and New York. The anonymous assault claimed five lives and caused panic throughout the U.S. Despite many false leads, a team of FBI agents and scientists slowly closed in on a shocking prime suspect.
While many of us can remember the breaking news headlines and widespread fear that arose during the anthrax attacks (because that was all anyone could talk about), there are many layers to this chilling and unbelievable crime story that have not yet been told.
National Geographic’s limited series The Hot Zone: Anthrax, inspired by true events, follows parallel stories of Matthew Ryker (Daniel Dae Kim) and Dr. Bruce Ivins (Tony Goldwyn). Ryker, an FBI agent with a specialty in microbiology, risks his career to convince his superiors of the unthinkable just three weeks after the 9/11 attacks: The United States is under attack again. Ivins – a brilliant microbiologist who becomes embroiled in the hunt to find the 2001 anthrax killer – works closely with the FBI to uncover who is behind the deadly anthrax letters, while his growing instability and paranoia give way to even deeper and unnerving discoveries.
In 2019’s The Hot Zone based on Richard Preston’s novel you could feel every aspect of the Ebola virus as fear and terror permeated through the screen. There was a sense of anger, uncertainty and sudden death lurking in every corner. Lives were destroyed, people died painfully and it felt unstoppable. The real Anthrax scare, while not a global pandemic struck fear into the hearts of Americans making their mail Public Enemy #1.
For the people who lived through the Anthrax scare 2001, it was an inescapable suffocating experience The Hot Zone Anthrax reduces to a virus of the week, complete with off-screen deaths and coughing. In the era of COVID it’s understandable if people are not too certain with reliving another craze but this show is so forgettable and plays it safe it’ll hardly trigger any emotions.
With six episodes the creators had the ability to deep dive in one of the most complicated cases in American history, focusing on the people whose lives were forever changed and the team who stopped a mass killer hiding in plain sight, instead The Hot Zone: Anthrax is a lesson it is important to show instead of tell.
The series explains from the beginning “Certain characters, scenes, and dialogue were imagined or invented for dramatic purposes,” but it offers neither drama nor creativity. A complicated multi-year investigations in the history of the FBI is boiled down to detective #1 through detective #3 solving a case after attending Psychology 101 training and going on a paint-by-numbers cat and mouse game. While there are moments of pure acting greatness, it doesn’t make a viewer care about the living nor the dead. Anthrax doesn’t feel like a threat as deaths occur off-screen as the destruction of Anthrax to the body is summed up in a cough. It doesn’t feel immediate or gives me a reason to care about these innocent people.
Without wasting any time, in the first episode, Anthrax spores are mailed to media offices in New York City and Boca Raton, Florida, and to senators in Washington, D.C where Matthew teams up with FBI profiler Dani Toretti (Dawn Olivieri) and newbie agent Chris Moore (Ian Colletti). As they make their way through different cities, USPS warehouses, and hospitals, the are the only people who believe the suspect is not Al-Qaeda, but an intelligent and lone white man targeting the victims.
Even though this season tells viewers things have been changed for “dramatic purpose.” The dramatics are boiled down to, three people going through emails and following a handful of clues in hopes of finding suspect ripped out of a CSI:Criminal Minds For FBI episode.
However, all is not lost as the series offers superb performances by Daniel Dae Kim and Tony Goldwyn. Matthew Ryker (Daniel Dae Kim) is the central figure as a microbiologist-turned-agent who he was near the Pentagon on 9/11, leading to PTSD. Even though the series doesn’t focus on Rkyer’s struggle with PTSD (unless him holding his hands on his head as CGI rubble falls about counts) it would have been a prefect moment to show how it affects him trying to solve this case, Kim does gives his best performance the script will allow. While Goldwyn is a standout as Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist whose mustache, disturbing behavior around women and basement gun storage makes him immediately suspicious….because stereotypes. But it is because of these stereotypes, Goldwyn has the most playing room for the character.
Spanning over seven years, The Hot Zone changes its perspective to focus on Bruce Ivins and Goldwyn does his best to save the script as he portrays a formulaic composite of a villain featuring everything from mommy issues, manipulation, ego and classic insecurities. Even though Big Sky does men with mommy issues better, Goldwyn shines as the viewers doesn’t know where his mood nor mustache will swing next. It attempts to explain and offer a psychological study into the character’s psyche as Bruce goes from happy to mentally disturbed. Bruce is deteriorating as viewers explore an unraveling mind through a series of therapy sessions, conversations and interrogations.
Overall, The Hot Zone Anthrax is a disappointing entry in an anthology series that started off incredibly strong, offers great performances but meets it downfall with boring writing that offers nothing new to say about the case nor being in a state of terror. With deaths not being shown, there is no state of urgency or emotional impact. A mechanical forgettable series that features even basic cameos.
The Hot Zone: Anthrax debuts on National Geographic on Nov 28th.