Never fear: Feds are here to let us know that movies aren’t real

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

No­body panic!

The fed­eral govern­ment is re­as­sur­ing the movie-go­ing pub­lic that, de­spite what they’re see­ing on the sil­ver screen, there is no im­mi­nent risk of an un­stop­pable bird flu out­break and, to the best of its knowl­edge, no ex­trater­res­trial life on the moon.

In re­sponse to the star-stud­ded film “Con­ta­gion,” which hit the­aters Sept. 9, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion Foun­da­tion will host a panel dis­cus­sion this week to dis­cuss the “myth vs. re­al­ity” in the movie, which cen­ters on a mu­tated virus claim­ing lives around the globe. CDC of­fi­cials will de­tail pre­ven­tion strate­gies in the event of an un­prece­dented pan­demic in the U.S.

While the CDC is fo­cused on what may hap­pen on Earth, NASA took a small step for man fur­ther two weeks ago.

Be­fore the Sept. 2 re­lease of “Apollo 18,” which pur­ports to use “found footage” of an ill­fated 1972 lu­nar mis­sion that ended with as­tro­nauts fall­ing prey to aliens, NASA of­fi­cials con­firmed what ev­ery­one should have al­ready known.

“Apollo 18 is not a doc­u­men­tary,” Bert Ul­rich, the space agency’s li­ai­son for mul­ti­me­dia, film and tele­vi­sion col­lab­o­ra­tions, told the Los An­ge­les Times a day be­fore the film opened.

“The film is a work of fic­tion, and we al­ways knew that. We were min­i­mally in­volved with this pic­ture. We never even saw a rough cut. The idea of por­tray­ing the Apollo 18 mis­sion as authen­tic is sim­ply a mar­ket­ing ploy. Per­haps a bit of ‘Blair Witch Project’ strat­egy to gen­er­ate hype,” he said.

“Apollo 18” may have been doomed long be­fore NASA poured cold water on its premise — the film’s re­lease date was pushed back mul­ti­ple times and it has been panned by most crit­ics. “Con­ta­gion,” on the other hand, is ex­pected to be a block­buster. Boast­ing a big bud­get and stars in­clud­ing Matt Da­mon, Gwyneth Pal­trow, Kate Winslet and Jude Law, the movie is ex­pected to draw big crowds and gen­er­ate big money. Given the at­ten­tion the film is likely to get, the CDC is tak­ing a proac­tive ap­proach to tamp down po­ten­tial anx­i­ety.

“This is not a doc­u­men­tary, but what we’re say­ing is this [film] has real el­e­ments and it car­ries through in very life­like ways what could hap­pen if there was an emerg­ing in­fec­tious dis­ease of un­known ori­gins,” Dr. Bar­bara Reynolds, a se­nior ad­viser for cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the CDC, told The Washington Times on Sept. 8.

“I think what the movie is go­ing to do is show the strug­gle, how quickly things can un­fold and why it’s im­por­tant to have a strong pub­lic health in­fra­struc­ture. This is a fic­tional ac­count . . . but the fact is, we could say ‘yes,’ in real life this kind of thing could hap­pen.”

Dr. Reynolds said the CDC isn’t as con­cerned with con­trol­ling mass panic as it is with show­ing the pub­lic that the na­tion’s health care sys­tem could han­dle an out­break like the one de­picted in “Con­ta­gion.” The CDC, she added, played a con­sult­ing role dur­ing the film’s de­vel­op­ment and a few scenes were shot on lo­ca­tion at CDC head­quar­ters in At­lanta.

“Con­ta­gion” and “Apollo 18” aren’t the first films to gen­er­ate re­sponse from the fed­eral govern­ment. A year af­ter the re­lease of Oliver Stone’s 1991 flick “JFK,” which told the tale of a far-reach­ing con­spir­acy that led to the 1963 as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Kennedy, Congress passed the John F. Kennedy As­sas­si­na­tion Records Col­lec­tion Act of 1992, which man­dated that all as­sas­si­na­tion-re­lated ma­te­ri­als be housed in a sin­gle lo­ca­tion at the National Ar­chives. The col­lec­tion con­tains more than 5 mil­lion pages of doc­u­ments, pho­tographs, au­dio record­ings from Dealey Plaza and other ma­te­ri­als, ac­cord­ing to the Ar­chives.

Af­ter the air­ing of the 1983 TV movie “The Day Af­ter,” ABC hosted a live de­bate on nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion and nu­clear war that in­cluded former Sec­re­tary of State Henry Kissinger, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Mc­Na­mara and other govern­ment of­fi­cials. The net­work also op­er­ated a hot­line with coun­selors stand­ing by to con­sole dis­turbed view­ers who may have taken the fic­tion­al­ized story too se­ri­ously.

“That fail­ure to dis­tin­guish fact from fic­tion still ex­ists to­day,” said Frank Pat­ter­son, dean of the Col­lege of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts at Florida State Univer­sity.

Be­fore “Apollo 18” and “Con­ta­gion,” Mr. Pat­ter­son said, he had never seen such a strong re­ac­tion by govern­ment of­fi­cials to fic­tional films. Part of the rea­son, he said, may be rooted in re­al­ity tele­vi­sion. Some TV view­ers are hav­ing an in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult time dis­cern­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween re­al­ity pro­grams and tra­di­tional scripted shows, he said. While ef­forts from NASA, the CDC or other en­ti­ties could help, Mr. Pat­ter­son said the viewer sim­ply needs to ex­er­cise some com­mon sense.

“Can we please just go back to the old-fash­ioned no­tion of crit­i­cal think­ing and ques­tion­ing the things be­fore us?” he said.

They’re just ac­tors: Scene from ‘Con­ta­gion’.

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