Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America (2006)

What we have today is an ABC made-for-TV movie of the week, rushed out to capitalize on the great avian flu/SARS scare of 2005-06, when we were just sure we were all going to die (or at least that's what Katie Couric kept telling us). I was expecting a hokey crap-fest, but even with such a sensationalist title, Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America turned out to be a really engrossing and well-made movie. The actors are uniformly good, the script is surprisingly free of most typical disaster movie awfulness, and the production quality was top-notch. Sony Pictures threw some money at this one, you can tell, and I had to struggle to find things to poke at to make an amusing review. How did I do?

First off, I am fighting a cold today, so this movie done scared the poo out of me. By the time it was over, I was sure I had Bird Flu, and after spending the next three hours on WebMD trying to find out if my persistent cough was the first sign of my lungs liquefying, I had just made myself sicker. I guess that's what makes for a powerful film, something that causes such a visceral reaction in the viewer, so in that respect this movie was awesome.

And on to the show...

Our show starts in rural China with a young girl hiding her infected chickens from local cops who are rounding up everyone's roosters and hens to contain a suspected bird flu outbreak. As it turns out, little PeggySue's chickens have the dreaded H5N1 Bird Flu virus and it's mutated where it can jump from animals to humans for the first time. As such, the first Prime Carrier is this seemingly innocent little schoolgirl, and all of what we see next is clearly totally her fault. Her conscious decision to shack up with poultry will be the cause of a wave of untold death and destruction like the world has never seen, and she may very well be doing it on purpose for some nefarious reason known only to that unique demographic that likes Hannah Montana and pepperoni pizza rolls. I believe that she is the Fifth Horse(wo)man of the Apocalypse, though as a ten-year old girl I'm sure she'll be riding a sparkly talking unicorn with chiffon wings and a rainbow saddle, and beneath her quaking, paisley pink hooves humanity will be ground into dust.

I sense evil afoot.

Her dad gets the flu but still does his shift at the local bottle factory. He is hacking and coughing all over everyone, not even having the common courtesy to cover his mouth with his sleeve or keep his germy egg salad sandwich off the break room table. This is why you have sick hours, so that you don't give other people your illnesses, in the long run you'll be saving the company much more costs from lost man-hours if you just stay home and get well before coming back to work (I have this conversation all the time...). But if he did that, I suppose we wouldn't have much of a movie.

The devil-girl's father spewing phlegm on the assembly line.

Visiting that very factory that very day is an American businessman, who looks frighteningly like Smilin' Bob, the guy from all those Enzyte male-enhancement commercials. Smilin' Bob rolls in and throws his import company-given weight around, talking down to the Chinese managers, issuing vague threats of cancelled orders and un-reimbursed warehouse expenses, and has the audacity to explain the just-in-time inventory system to them like they are children. Thankfully, he gets infected by the dad.

Smilin' Bob is a prick.

Smilin' Bob then goes back to his idyllic suburban family in Richmond, Virginia and proceeds to infect everyone around him with this incurable killer virus. He eventually dies a horrible, blood-splattered death on the sales floor of a Wal-Mart, but not before he's spread his germs around town, to his family, his friends, his coworkers, even his mistress with the big hooters down in Yorktown. Smilin' Bob is Patient Zero, the Typhoid Mary of Bird Flu, and Ground Zero is the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Smilin' Bob has a special present from the Orient for his wife (your mom was right, kissing boys will give you cooties).

Ok, we need a protagonist, someone who can stand toe-to-clawed foot with our avian death-overlords. Our heroine is a genetic scientist and one of the world's leading experts in Bird Flu (that's helpful). Her name is not important, but she looks like Ann Coulter and favors cashmere blouses and trendy SoHo jewelry. She's played by Joely Richardson, one of those "Hollywood names" whose resume is not nearly as impressive as her familiar-sounding name. The Doctor, as she will be known, is at the top of her game, fully knowledgeable in all things Bird Flu and well connected in political circles. She's also a frigid control-freak with intimacy issues, spurning lasting relationships for casual sex and distancing herself from any displays of empathy or care.

"Hi, I'm the heroine, don't mind me, I'm just going to sit over here, coolly detached from any real human emotion."

The Doctor goes to rural China to check on reports of the initial outbreak there (this is before Smilin' Bob comes home). Quickly, her fears of a killer global flu are realized as it's learned that the virus has jumped from animal to human and on to other humans (which means that this new strain is unknown to medical science and therefore ultimately dangerous to us all). She suggests rigorously isolating the town where it started, to cut off all contact with the residents, and hope that maybe this will stop the virus from spreading (in vain, it seems).

Chinese doctor gives her the grim news that it's out of control.

The Doctor then flies back home and meets with Health and Human Services Secretary Stacy Keach in Washington to discuss the flu outbreak (which she predicts will be here soon). It's a media circus, as a worried public is demanding both answers and solutions from the government, and they can't offer anything more constructive than "Remember to wash your hands!". I really thought this movie was going to make the government the bad guys, cardboard cut-outs of Evil Power-Hungry Politicians with unscrupulous agendas, but much to my surprise the majority of the governmental officials we see really truly care about what happens to the citizens of the country. They are shown as sympathetic and proactive, if understandably concerned about their own districts as well.

Secretary Stacy Keach listens as the Doctor speaks of the coming pandemic.

By now, the Bird Flu is popping up in isolated outbreaks all over the USA (thanks, Smilin' Bob!). It's shaping up to be the worst case scenario of all worst case scenarios, the epidemic sweeping away all the carefully laid-out contingency plans and earnestly crafted operational guidelines. There's no vaccine, no hope, no time to react, no pause to allow the huge, ungainly machine that is the medical and pharmaceutical communities to come to grips with the fact that people are dying by the thousands hourly and there's nothing in their arsenal to fix it. Governors band together to call for their National Guard troops to return from overseas deployments (best bit). Did I mention that this is all that girl's fault?

"I am the roaster of dogs and the eater of souls!"

The Doctor goes to see the Governor of Virginia in his command bunker to talk with him about the flu outbreak in his state and his response. She preaches to him about how his harshly-imposed isolation of infected neighborhoods in Richmond is a terribly bad idea because it's a violation of peoples' basic human rights to live free, make their own choices, and count on each other for help. Hmmm...wasn't she all gung-ho for isolating that Chinese town back in the beginning? Seems odd that she's now all "protect human rights" when before she was all "surround the town with an electric fence". [Editor Pam: Yes, but those people were, you know, not white Americans. Having the heroine be a racist would certainly add an original note to a TV movie, but I bet this movie isn't going to go that far. This attitude of hers is probably just a sop to civil libertarians in the audience.] The Governor, by the way, will end up playing a major role in this movie, getting just as much screen time and meaningful dialogue as the Doctor.

The Governor (hey, it's Max from Gilmore Girls).

You know, I have to agree with the Governor on this, he should totally isolate any infected areas while he still has some semblance of order in Richmond. I don't have any problem with the government taking over in a crisis situation, this is why we pay taxes, and I have an expectation that my duly-elected representatives will do whatever needs to be done to preserve the union, even if it means sending troops into the streets and ringing an infected housing complex with barbed wire and claymores. In almost every situation imaginable that involves large-scale organization and execution of plans, the government/military do a vastly better job than us regular citizens (suck it, Ron Paul). Soldiers have the leadership, training, and material wherewithal to handle mega-crisis situations, plus they get inoculations by the gallon every year and their immune systems are surely better suited to survive in a flu outbreak. The government, both state and national, has the authority and command and control systems needed to do everything needed better, be it routing supplies to hard-hit areas to keeping the lights on and the trains running. I'm all for temporarily giving up my constitutional rights if it means keeping society from collapsing. Hell, stamp me with the mark of the New World Order right now.

I trust these people, why wouldn't you?

Meanwhile, the rest of world is beginning to die, though it's only seen through TV news reports playing in the background of scenes. I do appreciate the small-scale focus this movie takes, concentrating just on the outbreak's effects on Richmond and New York City. It gives us a more intimate feel for the apocalypse than if they had tried to do location shoots scattered all over the place.

Nice to see they are still hitting the liquor stores, even as the world burns down around them, better than stealing TVs.

Off to New York City now to meet the Nurse, a cute Latina woman who will be our secondary female lead. Her hospital is swamped under with sick/think-they're-sick people, they are out of everything, and half the other nurses have quit, but she's still trying to do what's right, still clocking in everyday and saving lives the best she can. Her very human reactions to the death and dying all around her serve to balance out the cold, analytical detachment of the Doctor. And she has pretty hair.

The Nurse.

Let's meet the Nurse's husband, a big strapping soldierboy called back from Iraq to do homefront duty in flu-ravaged NYC. They have some genuinely sappy couple-moments as they reconnect and share their fears and concerns about their uncertain future. There is some real on-screen chemistry here, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if they ended up dating after the film wrapped (I hear that sort of thing is common in Hollywood). The Soldier wants his wife the Nurse to stay home, worried that her job at the hospital is too dangerous, but she's dedicated to saving lives. As is he, clearly, and he knows she's only doing what he himself would do.

The Soldier with the Nurse.

To steal a quote from my favorite band, it's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (actually, according to this movie, if I had the Bird Flu, I'd feel like shit, I'd have "body aches so intense I would feel like my bones are breaking" and would be "coughing so violently that I'd tear apart my abdominal muscles and my rib cartilage, and basically drown in my own blood"). The Nurse is part of a team of medical professionals treating flu victims who are massing in an ad-hoc hospital set up in a subway station (a stunningly great visual image as the camera follows her down the escalator into the teaming morass of blood and mucus below). This is Third World medical service, with no medicines, no machines, no sterilization, just helping hands and tearful eyes. The doctors and nurses can do little but try and comfort the dying and remove the dead.

Subway scene.

We need some action here, so we get a short scene of the Soldier and his squad protecting a convoy of food and medicine as it works its way through the violent, deserted concrete canyons of Manhattan. They are ambushed by a group of gangsters who wear baggy pants and like to hold their pistols sideways like Tupac told them to, but they are no match for the soldiers and their training and discipline (and their full-auto machineguns). This is actually a very well-done combat scene, and it seems that the soldiers are not just actors playing with guns, but maybe even men with real military training (just an observation, and maybe untrue, but I've watched enough crappy movies to tell the difference between a squad of soldiers who are just a gaggle of temp-worker extras who've seen too many Rambo movies, and a squad made up of former active duty infantrymen who have had some actual experience with firearms and small-unit tactical training).

Two-plus-One team, cover and advance.

The Bird Flu is really beating up the world hard now, tens of millions are already dead, that number increasing at an insane rate daily. Society is breaking down, economies are collapsing, and the very fabric of civilization is unraveling rapidly. The general mood is despair and terror, as everyone is sure this is the end of days. But, hey, relax, we've been through this before, right? The Black Death took away half of Europe, but they survived, right, hell they even prospered. Sure, the Spanish Flu killed 50 mil, but medical science back then was primitive, with today's technology that 1918 outbreak would have been easily contained. [Editor Pam: I've heard medical experts say that in both those cases, the majority of deaths could have been prevented by modern medicine. Of course, if modern sanitation had been in effect at the time of the Black Death, it probably wouldn't have happened.] I wonder if this little twerp had anything to do with that?

"I will bring the end of days!"

News comes now that the persnickety Frenchies have produced a vaccine. The problem is that they don't want to share it much as it's difficult to make and they don't have a lot (hard to blame them). They do, however, agree to send over enough doses for 100,000 people (after this is all over, assuming anyone is still alive, there's going to be diplomatic hell to pay). So now the government must decide who gets the vaccine. This conversation takes place between the Doctor and Secretary Stacy Keach (though it's academic, neither of them has any say in it), and they both agree that first shots should go to the medical professionals on the frontlines, the people who have the best chance of saving the most lives. To this movie's credit, they do not attempt to get all morally snooty about this, as it's really the most logical choice. I have to agree 110%, save the ER doc and the paramedic, not your pasty white unemployed comic book-collecting ass. In my humble and blasphemous opinion, plagues are nature's Darwinist culling of mouth-breathers, Klansmen, livejournal poets, wikipedia editors, and Nickelback fans, amongst others, and maybe the world would be a better place with a leaner, meaner population. Perhaps only 100,000 vaccinated doctors will survive Armageddon, let them inherit the earth, hard to come up with a better gene pool to repopulate the earth, eh? Of course, as with all virus outbreaks, a certain percentage of the random population will prove immune anyway, so you'd still have a worker class to oppress later on. Plus you'd still have all those people rich and powerful enough to afford underground NBC-protected bunkers. And seamen in submarines, they should be able to ride it out if they stay offshore. And the Russians on the ISS could maybe hold out a while. Oh, and the Nazis in their moon base, must not forget about them.

The press wants all the news.

More bad news as the Governor's child dies from the flu, even though he was sequestered in the bunker. The Governor now sees the error of his ways and lifts the (pointless) quarantines in his state. He then visits a dumping ground for corpses, a powerful scene staged late at night (though stolen from The Last Man on Earth). Maybe I'm heartless, but I'm still of the (admittedly unpopular and possibly heinous) opinion that what the world needs is a serious thinning of the population if the environment is ever going to be allowed a chance to heal itself. I'm a closet eco-terrorist and a firm believer in overpopulation being the number one danger to our planet's long-term survival, and I'd be out there on the frontline of the fight against mankind raping Mother Nature if I didn't have to be at work at seven tomorrow and if I didn't have tickets to District 9 for next Friday night. Honestly, caring about things is such a chore, who has the time?

At the dump.

Secretary Stacy Keach now dies from the flu. Gasp! Even rich and powerful white men can die? Oh no, this is serious now! Before, when it was just poor people and minorities (and...shudder...foreigners), it was bad, but you know, not too bad, but now the flu is killing off well-connected Princeton-educated white men who sip brandy and attend charity balls at the Met. All is indeed lost! The Doctor even sheds a tear, the first actual sign that she's not a Cylon cyborg.

The Doctor emotes (finally!).

But we Americans are hearty folk and we will keep fighting against all enemies that try and defeat us, be they godless commies parachuting down into our cities with their Cossack brutality, or microscopic killer germs wafting through the air on the sneezes of the terminally ill. The once-isolated, now freed suburban community in Richmond organizes itself in the absence of any real governmental authority. This grass-roots effort to band together to help the survivors and bury the dead is led by none other than Patient Zero Smilin' Bob's wife (whose transformation from kept woman to firebrand rabble-rouser has been as rapid as the virus' spread). This community is recognized by the Governor and media as a shining example of Americans holding fast against the onslaught of extinction. I do wonder, however, about all those unvaccinated people mingling around in the open with people who could potentially be carriers. My personal plan for survival in such a scenario is to hole up alone in my bunker, oiling my machineguns and counting my cases of bottled water and beef jerky until the Rapture comes.

The Governor meets the wife and her cute (jailbait) daughter.

To further swell our hearts with hope and encouragement, we hear that the Nurse and the Soldier are going to have a child (yay, though who would want to have a baby in such an environment of loss and devastation?). She surprises him with a book of baby names, and he surprises her with a candlelit dinner and an impromptu salsa dance on the rooftop while sappy music plays and strands of Christmas lights twinkle. And this little ray of sunshine, this little green shoot of life, is the scene this movie should end with. A tear-stained reminder that, no matter what troubles befall us, love and family will endure.

Dancing on the roof.

But, sadly, that evil little Chinese girl will have the last, cackling, blood-curdling laugh, stabbing us through the heart one last time with her Jonas Brothers pencil. The stinger is the Doctor in sweltering equatorial Angola, where the Bird Flu has mutated into a 100% killer strain that snickers in the face of any vaccine, and now the fate of the human race is sealed. The closing credits roll with the ominous sight of a flock of infected birds flapping over the verdant jungles, surely heading off to kill off the rest of humanity.

Oh, this is not going to end well, is it?

The end. Chinese girls are EVIL.

[Editor Pam: It's a dramatic movie, but in real life, plagues that kill people this quickly also tend to burn out quickly, because their carriers die too fast to spread the disease effectively.]

Written in August 2009 by Nathan Decker.

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