Posted: 11/01/1999


And the Band Played On


by Del Harvey

This is the must-see story of the early days of the AIDS virus and the key individuals who led the battle against “death by red tape.”

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This made for HBO movie is a little heavy handed and hard to stomach at times; but if you’ve ever known anyone with AIDS, or lost someone to this terrible disease, then you will probably share my feelings that this film was long overdue and very important.

This may also be the finest performance of Matthew Modine’s career. Personally, he is not an actor I prefer watching. But in this film he creates a very human, very accessible character. As a young doctor who has fought against incredibly horrible diseases in some of the remotest areas of the world, he paints the perfect portrait of a researcher for the Centers of Disease Control who is tilting at windmills in the earliest days of the battle against AIDS. The obstacles a government agency faces in obtaining funding and resources for simple day-to-day operations are minor compared to those required to deal with the sudden outbreak of a killer virus, especially on a national level.

The film shifts between the efforts of the CDC’s research staff and a few pivotal individuals in San Francisco, most notably Lily Tomlin and Ian McKellen. Initially, Charles Martin Smith is the connection between these two elements, as the CDC representative sent to San Francisco to investigate the outbreak in this major domestic city. He soon proves Tomlin’s greatest ally and facilitator within the government, and she proves his greatest asset within the community. A rift develops within the community as the CDC pushes to close down the bathhouses, which is seen by many gay men in the film as a symbol of their sexual freedom. The community is typically divided between those who wish to give up their sexual independence and attendant identity, and those who recognize the threat to their health. The film also follows, briefly, attempts by other CDC researchers as they travel the country gathering evidence of a virus in hopes of finding a solution through knowledge of their common enemy.

At some point the “enemy” seems to become a split entity in the film. The need to giveevil a human, and therefore recognizable, face is carried forth in the person of Dr. Bob Gallo, head of the national laboratory at Bethesda, and played by Alan Alda. Since he wants the glory of discovering and naming the virus so badly that he is willing to tie up the successful efforts of the CDC and the French government’s scientists with enough red tape to quelch any serious progress for decades. Common sense on the part of the French and the CDC prevails as they strike a bargain with Gallo, who turns around and announces to the world that he was the one who discovered the virus, thus screwing everyone for the sake of his ego.

The film ends on an odd note, full of emotion-provoking/propagandist images—which are mostly accurate—such as footage from the candlelight vigils in San Francisco, juxtaposed with footage of Reagan and Nancy leading the conservative Right into four more years of misery. I was reminded of the ending to Schindler’s List and absently wondered if this was where Spielberg stole his ending.

There is a very fine scene in this film where the CDC is meeting with other government health agencies at a round table discussion in an attempt to determine how to curb the spread of this disease as much as they can. As the attendees allow their comments to become more internal, and a few high-level bureaucrats allow their to become more shallow and financially driven, Modine’s frustration overcomes his civility and he stands to deliver the most passionate and emotional speech he has ever delivered. He lets loose a rant at these gut-scared officials, essentially asking them how many people must die before a cure becomes cost effective?

And The Band Played On is one of the reasons why HBO is better than network TV, and often better than first-run features. The cast of this film is peppered with big-name actors who took scale in order to be a part of the project, including Steve Martin, Anjelica Houston, and Richard Gere. Their personal reasons for being a part of this story are well substantiated. This is a must-see film.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.

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