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Feds aim for clear line between fact, fiction

Hollywood disaster flicks could stir public unease

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2011

Nobody panic!

The federal government is reassuring the movie-going public that, despite what they're seeing on the silver screen this weekend, 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 hits theaters Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation will host a panel discussion next 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 last week.

Before the Sept. 2 release of "Apollo 18," which purports to use "found footage" of an ill-fated 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 Thursday.

"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.

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