”It’s like all the plagues in the history of the world got squeezed into this one,” says a medical researcher in And the Band Played On, an engrossing TV movie based on Randy Shilts’ best-seller about the discovery of the AIDS virus. This remark reminds us of what a terrifying, baffling disease AIDS has been and sets up the intriguing, sometimes awkward, always earnest combination of docudrama, medical melodrama, and mystery story that And the Band Played On manages to be.
Director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire) and screenwriter Arnold Schulman (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) have taken Shilts’ sprawling nonfiction book and narrowed its focus to a group of Centers for Disease Control researchers. The central figure to emerge is Dr. Don Francis, played by Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket). Used for his fresh-faced earnestness, Modine shows Francis immersed in discovering the origins of acquired immune-deficiency syndrome, and we look over his shoulder as Francis and his colleagues try to make sense of this new disease.
Of course, any good drama needs a human villain. And the Band Played On finds its heavy in Dr. Robert Gallo, a prominent medical researcher who, according to Schulman’s screenplay, tries to turn the race to isolate the AIDS virus into a petty, politics-ridden grab for glory. Gallo is played by Alan Alda with a highly effective, frosty ruthlessness.
Along the way, the film offers brief, anecdotal scenes — Richard Gere as a prominent choreographer stricken with AIDS (the character is unnamed but seems to be based on the late Michael Bennett); Steve Martin as the anguished brother of an AIDS sufferer; Phil Collins as the owner of a San Francisco gay bathhouse who resists being closed down by city edict in 1985; and Lily Tomlin as a crusading public health official.
None of these cameo performances makes much of an impact, though. The stars lend warmth to a movie necessarily preoccupied with cold research and politics, and they lend prestige: The movie must be important, since actors of this stature agreed to appear. The result of the stars’ generosity, however, works against the movie by halting the flow of the drama every time a familiar face pops up on screen.
It’s obvious why a movie adapting this book wouldn’t appear on network television: Band pulls no punches in its strong criticisms of government policy regarding the disease. Perhaps the best aspect of the film is the way it makes vivid the paucity of federal funds early in the AIDS crisis. There are as many conversations about thwarted grant proposals and outmoded medical equipment as about the disease itself. Several times, the image of a smiling Ronald Reagan flickers across a TV screen in the background of a scene, and the researchers turn to sneer at the man. For them, the film suggests, Reagan personified the benign neglect of an ongoing calamity.
The emotions and agony involved in this subject give Band an irresistible power, yet the movie’s rhythm is choppy and the dialogue frequently stiff and clichéd. The best compliment one can pay this TV movie is to say that unlike so many fact-based films, it does not exploit or diminish the tragedy of its subject. B+