The first scene of “The Hot Zone” is a chilling scene-setter, but also a bit of an tonal red herring. Captured with sparse dialogue and plenty of gut-churning close-ups, a sick man struggles to walk out of his house and climb into a cab for the airport. Somehow, he boards the plane, despite giant red welts covering his face and near-constant coughing upsetting his fellow passengers. On his way back from the restroom, the man clings to the backs of each seat just to stay upright, before collapsing into his own chair — and promptly vomiting up a barf-bag full of blood that the attendant dutifully dumps down a toilet.
The man is rushed to a Nairobi hospital, but there’s nothing to be done. As a young physician rushes to get air to his clogged lungs, a pocket of bloody discharge pops across the doctor’s face. He’s taken aback, staring at the nurse and wondering what, if anything, he can do next.
The audience watching likely feels the same way. Clearly, this man is suffering from a deadly disease, and he’s exposed countless people to that disease via a travel scenario we’re all familiar with — so, that’s it, right? Because Patient Zero here decided to hop on a plane, the entirety of humanity is at risk. These stakes are reinforced by what follows, as “The Hot Zone” jumps forward to another very real viral risk threatening North America rather than Africa, but the relentless tone and pacing slows down a bit to highlight exactly how an outbreak can happen — and how it can be stopped. Engrossing in its specificity, if a bit too cold toward its human subjects, “The Hot Zone” gets its message across without sacrificing any drama.
Based on Richard Preston’s 1994 best-seller of the same name, Nat Geo’s limited series adaptation stars Julianna Margulies as Dr. Nancy Jaax, a U.S. Army scientist who encounters the then-unknown Reston virus among imported monkeys in Reston, Virginia. Nearly one-third of the monkeys have died, and Jaax’s team is called on to determine what might be killing off so many apes. Though her colleagues remain dismissive toward any extraordinary causes (they think it’s Simian fever), Jaax moves quickly to identify an Ebola outbreak.
National Geographic/Amanda Matlovich
That includes a lengthy, largely unbroken scene in which Jaax enlists a young sergeant (Lenny Platt) to help her examine the sample, which involves entering the Level 4 Biosafety containment area. Jaax, the experienced officer, walks him through every step of the protective process, doubling to explain the precautions for the audience: Strip off all your clothes and jewelry. Don fresh, white, lab clothes. Squeeze into a bulky, oxygen-free plastic suit. Clip into an outside oxygen source. Enter the decontamination chamber, and, finally, test the sample.
When Jaax opens the freezer in “the hot zone”, she says bluntly, “Do you know how many people would die on this planet if the leftovers of this freezer ever got released?” “All of us?” the young sergeant replies. Nodding, she adds, “And there’s not a cure on the horizon.” This kind of on-the-nose dialogue can get a bit grating at times, as can the pat personal stories built around the scientific threat. Jaax’s marriage is a bit dull compared to her work, and even having her hubby as part of the team — Noah Emmerich plays Lt. Col. Jerry Jaax, who works on the base, too — does little to liven up the role. (Though it’s kind of nice to see the husband saddled with a naggy “let’s just save the kids” character instead of the wife.)
Still, the core story works very, very well. Audiences should be adequately unnerved by the viral threats to our world and impressed by the scientists’ behind-the-scenes efforts to save us. It’d be easy to argue that Dr. Jaax is the true superhero of 2019 media, as she disobeys orders and puts herself at risk in order to protect the global population. Margulies does right by the role, dialing things back to a clinical, thoughtful passion for her cause, without going too big, too often in order to convey just how dire this particular circumstance is becoming. The rest of the cast carries their own appeal — Topher Grace is a great wormy villain, and Liam Cunningham continues to excel as the strong, silent type — and even if “The Hot Zone” can’t connect with characters as well as it educates the audience, this limited series is a scary, absorbing thriller you won’t easily forget.
“The Hot Zone” premiered its first two episodes at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Nat Geo will air the six-part limited series over three consecutive nights, starting May 27 at 9 p.m. ET.