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Recommended: The Anthrax Attacks on Netflix

Documentarian Dan Krauss revisits the post-9/11 terrorist action that led to a years-long FBI investigation.
  • An image from The Anthrax Attacks. (Photo: Netflix)
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    The Anthrax Attacks | Netflix
    Documentary Film (1hr 35m)

    What's The Anthrax Attacks About?

    In the weeks following 9/11, envelopes filled with anthrax spores were mailed to politicians and American media outlets in an act of terrorism that rattled the country. This documentary looks at the FBI investigation that followed, and why it took years to target the alleged perpetrator.

    Who's involved?

    • Dan Krauss (director) is a two-time Oscar nominee in the Documentary Short category, having made The Death of Kevin Carter, about the death by suicide of a South African photojournalist, and the excellent Extremis, about the people working in a palliative care unit.
    • Clark Gregg (best known for his performances as Phil Coulson in the Marcel Cinematic Universe) plays Dr. Bruce Ivins in reenactments. Ivins is the man suspected to have been the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks.

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    For those not old enough to remember, it's hard to describe the sense of loss, insecurity and anxiety felt by so many Americans in the weeks and months after the September 11th attacks. At the time we didn't know if the attacks were even over, or if we were just in between a first and second wave.

    It was into this atmosphere in September and October of 2001 that a series of envelopes containing anthrax were mailed to NBC News, Senator Tom Daschle, and several others, further terrorizing an already shaken nation. But as our collective attention turned to Afghanistan and then Iraq, the FBI investigation into the anthrax attacks continued in the background for years, with investigators obsessed with one suspect while the likely culprit was ignored.

    The Anthrax Attacks does a good job of telling this story as one that begins in a country gripped by fear and ends as one of systems failing citizens. Dan Krauss, the film's director, sets up the atmosphere of the fall of 2001 without leaning on any of the expected crutches but instead by focusing on what the weeks after 9/11 felt like.

    Through news footage, we see a parade of people who feel like they've stepped out of a mist to be revisited upon us: President George W. Bush, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, Attorney General John Ashcroft. By the time Robert Meuller is identified as the then-director of the FBI, you half expect the next guy to be Jacob Marley rattling around his ghostly chains.

    The film follows a few parallel paths. In one, there's the investigation, which initially assumed that the origin of the envelopes was Al Qaeda, in what would have been a very real second-wave attack. But as the shocking truth emerged that the anthrax almost certainly originated in an American laboratory, media interest in the case waned. To be fair, that may have more to do with the fact that the FBI's investigation stretched out for five years, most of which time was spent hounding one man: Dr. Steven Hatfill, a biological weapons expert who had raised the suspicions of some for a report he compiled years earlier which some said was a "blueprint" for the anthrax mailings.

    That Hatfill proved to be such a time-consuming red herring is frustrating, but it becomes even more frustrating as Krauss interlaces the FBI's investigation with the story of the Postal Service workers who had been put in the path of danger with the anthrax mailings, and who were not properly warned, protected, or cared for, even as some of them got sick and died.

    Interviews with some of the former Postal Service employees and relatives of the victims are infuriating as they paint an all too recognizable portrait of people who the government failed to keep safe from a major health crisis. In referencing the drug that was meant to treat anthrax exposure, one victim notes, "the dogs on Capitol Hill got Cipro before we did."

    Krauss's boldest gambit is his telling the story of Dr. Bruce Ivins, a biodefense researcher for the Army who finally became the focus of the investigation when it was determined through gene mapping that the anthrax originated from his lab. Krauss opts for reenactments of scenes involving Ivins's interrogation and the Feds' investigation into him, with character actor Clark Gregg in the role of Ivins.

    This kind of thing has worked before, somewhat recently in Errol Morris's Netflix docuseries Wormwood which starred, among others, Peter Sarsgaard. Morris's series was so highly stylized that the reenactments felt of a piece with the surreal subject matter (the CIA's MKUltra LSD trials), while Gregg's presence in The Anthrax Attacks is a bit more jarring. Still, it's a strong and unnerving performance of a man who remains frustratingly unknowable.

    The Anthrax Attacks attempts to conclude the telling of a tale so many of us heard the beginning of but maybe never knew how it ended. It's a story of government failure in a time of great fear and uncertainty. Perhaps that will have some resonance today.

    Pairs well with

    • Wormwood, Errol Morris' bold Netflix docuseries about the CIA's MKUltra program and the mysterious death of one of the men involved in it. (Read our review.)
    • The Report, the 2019 Adam Driver film dramatizing the fight to document the United States' torture program during the War on Terror, another portrait of American paranoia and the terrible consequences of that uncertainty. Streaming on Prime Video.
    • Richard Jewell, another story about how a moment of domestic terror led federal authorities to focus their attention on an innocent man. Directed by Clint Eastwood in 2019, the film is available for rental or purchase at Amazon and other outlets.
    • The Hot Zone: Anthrax, National Geographic's six-episode dramatized account of the 2001 Antrax attacks and the FBI's eventual pursuit of Bruce Ivins (played by Tony Goldwyn). Streaming on Hulu.

  • The Anthrax Attacks
    Premieres on Netflix September 8, 2022.
    Created by: Dan Krauss.
    Starring: Clark Gregg.
    Directed by: Dan Krauss.

    TOPICS: The Anthrax Attacks, Netflix, Clark Gregg, Dan Krauss, Dan Krauss