ABC News recently aired a series of reports seeking to separate fact from fiction regarding the threat of an Avian Flu pandemic, but the entertainment division adopts the “Let’s scare the hell out of everyone” strategy — and just in time for sweeps. Unfortunately, the producers appear to have chosen a title and then cobbled together a movie to fit it, albeit one that lacks a story structure or, for that matter, an ending. ABC disclaims the project as a “fictional examination of the question, what if …,” but its intentions are clear, even if its punctuation isn’t.
In some respects, this cynical exercise apes a British production that FX televised last year, “Smallpox,” which also featured a running tally as the death toll mounted. That project, however, was shot mock-documentary style (using the chilling promotional line, “It’s all true. It just hasn’t happened yet”), whereas “Fatal Contact” is presented as a conventional TV movie fleshed out by unrelated, parallel storylines.
At the ostensible center is the Epidemic Intelligence Service’s Dr. Varnack (“Nip/Tuck’s” Joely Richardson), who must respond to the deadly outbreak of H5N1, which has mutated into a virus that’s transmittable from human to human and is brought to the U.S. by a Hong Kong business traveler. Varnack is joined by the secretary of Health and Human Services (Stacy Keach) and governor of Virginia (Scott Cohen), who is understandably frustrated by the scientific community’s inability to respond.
On a more human level, the script by Ron McGee incorporates a New York City nurse (Justina Machado) and the aforementioned businessman’s widow (Ann Cusack), putting a personal touch on the sudden loss, food shortages, looting, quarantines and overrun hospitals that ensue.
Although the movie boasts input from a well-known medical consultant, as directed by Richard Pearce its credibility is less than overwhelming, perhaps because what sounds like slasher-pic music swells every time a coughing person shakes hands, thus spreading the disease.
Nor is there much effort to advance the disparate plot threads, which are left dangling without even the benefit of a closing note to provide context.
Of course, the movie has already generated plenty of advance publicity, which amounts to a minor victory for ABC’s moribund Tuesday night; still, it’s hard to escape the sense that “Bird Flu in America” was hastily greenlit and produced on the cheap (in New Zealand) solely for shock value, an attention-getting device with scant interest in bringing additional enlightenment to a topic that warrants it.
Granted, ascribing unsavory motives to such fare can be dicey, but in this case, if it quacks like a duck …