May 15, 2006 12:00 PM

Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America
ABC

(May 9, 8 p.m. ET)

DRAMA

Even a cheesy TV movie can scare when it takes on a red-button topic—and Fatal Contact isn’t cheesy. Imagining a bird-flu pandemic that breaks out after the H5N1 virus mutates and becomes transmissible from human to human—a “what if,” the film notes, still debated by scientists—Contact moves skillfully and swiftly from plot to plot, tracking a disease that claims well over 20 million lives. The most vital story is Joely Richardson’s: She plays a government epidemiologist on the trail of the virus from China back to Richmond, Va., where it arrives in the lungs of a traveling businessman. He coughs so violently, the cartilage of his rib cage shreds. The movie is best at its most muted: corpses being dumped into a landfill, a body being carried out under a white sheet with a red stain where the mouth would be.

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