And the Band Played On

Since neither NBC nor any major studio wanted to touch Randy Shilts’ bestseller, HBO deserved applause for greenlighting it at all. (In later years, HBO and Showtime would make gay programming commonplace.) The movie is long on virtue, but it’s naturally compelling — a cosmic murder mystery. Matthew Modine stars as Dr. Don Francis, of the Atlanta Centers for Disease Control, who locks horns not only with AIDS but with the many people who stand in the way of his research. Intelligently, with minimal hysteria and compact storytelling, the film takes us through the sixteen-year growth and history of HIV. The script makes its points without laying blame at the feet of the media boogeymen of the ‘80s: promiscuous gays and bathhouses. (The villains are clearly the Reagan administration and callous medical bureaucrats.) Yet it stirred much controversy among activists who kept close tabs on the production, at one point inspiring director Roger Spottiswoode to fire off a well-publicized fax of protest. Ironically, this film Spottiswoode walked away from was his finest work in years. There’s no way we can’t be moved, though the movie could have used fewer cameos by conscientious celebrities (Steve Martin, Richard Gere, Phil Collins, etc.) who obviously appear here out of compassion and solidarity, but who generally don’t move the story along. Best is Alan Alda, atypically (at the time) loathsome as a glory-hogging researcher.

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Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, biopic, drama

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