National Geographic debuts its six-episode miniseries “The Hot Zone” on May 27. Based on true events, the series surrounds the threat of a widespread Ebola outbreak when it arrived on U.S. shores in 1989 as well as the origins of the virus. In the pilot episode, the well-developed cast keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as characters continually come in contact with the virus, one that kills 90 percent of its victims. Julianna Margulies plays the series’ protagonist and is backed by a strong cast, despite it featuring one performance.
Margulies plays Dr. Nancy Jaax, a colonel at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). Margulies portrays her as a confident leader, whether it be as the head of her family or in directing male subordinates at USAMRIID. The first time we see Jaax at work, she is testing a sample from a diseased monkey that her co-workers believe to be a simple case of simian hemorrhagic fever, which does not affect humans. But Jaax believes it’s something more threatening, and she tests the sample further.
Playing a female doctor surrounded by men on an army base in the late ’80s, Margulies brilliantly embodies the “fish out of water.” Jaax is constantly standing up to men who don’t believe her diagnosis of Ebola, whether it be her co-worker, her boss or the administration at the facility housing the Ebola-infected monkeys. Margulies delivers her lines in a dry, authoritative tone that leaves no question she believes in her cause and her ability to achieve it. When speaking to her mentor, though, a softer side peeks through Jaax’s tough exterior. Margulies’ character work is well done, and her deadpan delivery of the few comedic lines she’s afforded land beautifully. It’s an overall powerhouse performance.
Grace plays Jaax’s obnoxious colleague Dr. Peter Jahrling. His portrayal, unfortunately, lands as a dialed-in “smart office-guy” trope. Grace is no stranger to playing the sarcastic smart aleck, but this performance falls flat. His character work lacks depth, and many of his dramatic moments don’t ring true. His performance improves toward the end of the pilot when his character’s selfish choices lead him to take on the role of the show’s villain. At one point, he plays on a co-worker’s love for his family to keep him from confessing an important secret that could lead to a widespread Ebola outbreak on U.S. soil. Given the deft artistry with which he played David Duke in “BlacKkKlansman,” it’s hopeful that as his character delves further into villain status, Grace’s less-than-impressive work out of the gate will develop into a more compelling and accomplished one as the series continues.
Cunningham plays Dr. Wade Carter, a character who begins the pilot in reclusive retirement in Cape Code. When Jaax reaches out to him for assistance in containing the Ebola outbreak, he initially ignores her request, and we understand why through a series of flashbacks to Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1976. Carter travels there on an expedition in response to a report of widespread death and disease. He’s brash and fearless, quipping that it’s probably just a bad outbreak of the flu. But when he sees the devastation of an entire village whose inhabitants burned themselves to try and prevent the disease from spreading, we see an incredibly emotional moment wash over Carter. It’s a mini masterclass in acting and just one of the many moments in which Cunningham’s performance shines in “The Hot Zone.”
Present-day Carter is still a strong force and a man of few words. He’s witnessed firsthand the horrors of Ebola and doesn’t mind breaking a few rules in his mission to contain it this time. Carter’s hard shell softens a bit in his interactions with Jaax. Their relationship of mentor and protégé is believable and offers a couple of the pilot’s lighter moments. Cunningham’s overall work in delivering a dynamic character and building believable relationships makes for a standout performance.
Margulies leads a cast of talented performers in the pilot episode of “The Hot Zone” as they breathe life into a harrowing, true-life story. Her portrayal of a strong female protagonist is noteworthy and will leave viewers eagerly anticipating Jaax’s next moves in the series’ remaining five episodes. While Grace’s performance falls short as a whole, it ends on a high note that bodes well for the remainder of the series. But it is Cunningham that truly steals the show. His mastery of the craft is evidenced by the focus with which he plays Carter. Cunningham stays in his own “hot zone” as an actor throughout.