Disease of the week movies often try to make a point about suffering by bombarding the viewer with emotion to the point that the film no longer seems to reflect real life. The producers of HBO's And the Band Played On boldly took a different approach, exploring the AIDS crisis during its first seven years from a scientific, social perspective. What results is at times thrilling, terrifying, and ultimately heartbreaking. It is especially important now, on the twentieth anniversary of the discovery of the AIDS virus and during a time when many experts believe that AIDS is about to make a catastrophic comeback, that we not forget the journey to date. And the Band Played On, based on Randy Shilts' tremendous journalistic account, is told mostly from the perspective of Don Francis (Matthew Modine), a Centers for Disease Control scientist whose prior work included stopping Ebola Fever from becoming an epidemic. The opening scenes find Francis in Africa dealing with the localized devastation of Ebola Fever and the images of death and suffering haunt him throughout the rest of the film. He seems driven by a desire to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem and, even though he may be somewhat idealized, his earnestness is sincere. The same cannot be said for some of the other scientists who are waylaid by bureaucracy (Saul Rubinek's head of the CDC is constantly stymied by red tape) and greed (Alan Alda makes a great villain as the world-famous Dr. Robert Gallo whose desire to take sole credit for discovery of the virus slows the process of trying to cure it). The entire cast is excellent, particularly Ian McKellan as San Fransisco gay rights activist Bill Kraus and Lily Tomlin as the no-nonsense Dr. Selma Dritz. The huge cast (which also includes Richard Gere, Phil Collins, Steve Martin, Angelica Huston, Swoozie Kurtz, Richard Masur, Glene Headley, and Charles Martin Smith) turns in uniformly subtle and excellent work. No one showboats and the film, which is filled with science, retains a subtle depth because of it. Those familiar with the development of the AIDS epidemic will find themselves recognizing key events, like the moment a French-Canadian man taking part in the first wave of interviews with possible victims of the then-unnamed disease mentions that he is an airline steward. Later referred to as Patient Zero, this man was key in understanding how AIDS spreads since doctors were able to chart the disease's effect on his little black book. By gaining new partners at each stop on his airline's flight path Patient Zero unwittingly helped spread AIDS around the globe. That AIDS was initially thought to be a gay disease is critical to understanding how it developed. With a newly elected conservative presidency the early-80's were a bad time to need federal funding for research into anything primarily affecting the gay community. When Francis encounters resistance from the government no one is surprised (after all, it took Reagan nearly his entire presidency to mention AIDS publicly) but when the San Francisco gay community practically riots at the suggestion that the bath houses be closed down he is at a loss. In the early years of AIDS nobody wanted to believe the truth and the CDC and the government didn't help (The film accuses blood providers of continuing to allow transfusions with tainted blood after they knew it would cause AIDS). In the film it isn't until a baby can be proved to have AIDS that irrefutable evidence that everyone is at risk exists and it is that turning point that helps bring the message to the public. As far as medical dramas go And the Band Played On is top notch. The fact that it chronicles such an important and devastating time only helps it resonate more. VIDEO:
The anamorphic video looks pretty good. There is some dirt on the print, but not an unacceptable amount. This is an early example of the HBO filmmaking machine and doesn't have quite the slickness that more recent films and shows have. Still, it is a well visualized film for the subject. AUDIO:
Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 tracks are available. The film is mostly dialog and, while good, there isn't anything too dynamic about the sound. EXTRAS:
Only some bios are available. Considering the subject matter this is a shame. There is a limitless amount of additional information that could have been included. FINAL THOUGHTS:
A moving testament to the frailty of mankind, And the Band Played On has the ability to surprise and scare. If a disease can so easily infiltrate our society, and if our government can be so incompetent in dealing with it, how can we ever feel safe?
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.E-mail Gil at [email protected]