And the Band Played On (1993)

Dir. Roger Spottiswoode. Starring Matthew Modine, Saul Rubinek, Alan Alda

The story of the HIV/AIDS crisis, especially in its nascent days in the late 1970s, is utterly terrifying. Until I read Randy Shilts’ magnificent tome on the first ten years of AIDS, And the Band Played On, it was hard for me to realize just how terrifying it was. Not to belabor the point, because I’ve actually talked about the book on the podcast before (fast forward to 23:30 if you want to hear me gush about it with my voice), but And the Band Played On does a fabulous job of setting a scene. It’s the late ’70s. Jimmy Carter is in office. Gay rights are on the upswing across the nation, although there are clear pockets of resistance and hatred yet to be converted to the 20th Century. And then all of a sudden, gay men start getting sick. Really sick. They come down with these exotic diseases – or at least they were exotic, before Kaposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis pneumonia become household names because of AIDS – and then they die. Otherwise normal men just up and die, no matter their will or their treatment or their health. Shilts, who died of AIDS [sic] himself, describes the diagnosis in Conduct Unbecoming as being told that you will be hit by a bus and killed at some point in the next five years. It’s an imperfect analogy; AIDS rarely was merciful enough to kill quickly. And the Band Played On, with its unflinching depiction of how AIDS took root – and how the Reagan administration let it do so – should scare the life out of you. I think it’s a book that gets scarier every year. It was published before I was born. It was doubtless scary in 1987; almost thirty years later, reading about how a government that had the power to save thousands upon thousands of lives and instead chose to leave its citizens in the dark en route to early graves is Exorcist-level horror.

Anyway, HBO adapted And the Band Played On to the small screen for a 1993 release. The book is interesting in that it tries to see all sides. Shilts notes the reactions in the gay communities of San Francisco and New York, the two most important gay communities in America in the late ’70s. He follows Larry Kramer and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York; sadly, ACT UP came too late for this book. And in San Francisco, he focuses specially on Bill Kraus, a former Harvey Milk aide who in a world without AIDS would have been perhaps the most important gay political figure in America. But Shilts also has a keen eye for the medical side of HIV/AIDS as well, and for that reason he follows Don Francis of the CDC in Atlanta; in America, there was no clearer eye on the disease from an epidemiological perspective. Francis’ story quickly blends into the story of countless doctors and public health officials who worked to discover, label, and fight AIDS as best they could.

What makes the book such a resolutely powerful testament – and having actually finished the book now, I feel confident saying this – is that it’s so human. There is such remarkable pathos in the writing. Each person in the book is just that. Kramer and Kraus, who both argued for safe sex once they started to recognize the severity of AIDS and thus were vilified by significant segments  of their own constituencies, aren’t perfect. Kramer is just as pugnacious and difficult as you’d expect; Kraus’ retreat to France for treatment, infused with a strange mysticism, is understandable but hardly flattering. Don Francis’ frustration with bureaucracy rapidly becomes our own, and his frustration with the Franco-American dispute over who discovered AIDS (and, presumably, who will win a Nobel for it) takes precedence over creating a vaccine.

I’ve argued on this website over and over again that judging a film against its source material – a book, a musical, a graphic novel, whatever – is a losing proposition. The source material and the film are fundamentally different texts, down to the media itself. It makes no sense to condemn And the Band Played On-1993, an unspectacular TV movie, because And the Band Played On-1987 was a tour de force of book-length journalism. What And the Band Played On does wrong is that it strips the humanity from its source material. The failure of the film is that it is, and I say this as gently as I can, heartless.

The main character of the film is Don Francis (Modine). Bill Kraus is a supporting character, played by Ian McKellen; McKellen just feels miscast here, and because he’s the man I won’t say much more. The New York wing of the early years of HIV/AIDS, from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to The Normal Heart to ACT UP, is totally absent from this story; the closest we get to them is Richard Gere, playing an anonymous (and in a film this scrupulously historical, that means fictional) choreographer. He dies fairly early in the movie. Kraus is something of a non-entity; he only exists in Francis’ shadow, either as a tool for Francis to use to try to get San Francisco to close down bathhouses (a failed motion), or as a way for Francis to compare his success fighting Ebola in Africa to his failure fighting AIDS in America. Gay men pop in and out of the story, most notably Gaetan Dugas, who contributed significantly to the spread of the disease. Yet it is the straight (if basically unencumbered) Francis who gets the attention; the most important repeated conflict of the story is that Francis can’t get his boss, Jim Curran (Rubinek) to stand up for him and get more funding. HIV/AIDS is one of the most powerful and haunting human stories of the past fifty years in this country; how did filmmakers look at And the Band Played On and decide that it would best be turned into a medical procedural? Instead of relying on characters we can follow from health to illness, from uncertainty to death, the film tosses patients at us in short scenes, scenes that are tawdry with hamming and, well, movie-of-the-week writing. They cover the gamut of AIDS patients. One gay patient has Kaposi’s sarcoma and has, in what is surely a reference to the conventional wisdom, turned purple. Another patient is panicky and looks out his window at a stretch of graves. Dugas (Jeffrey Nordling) is reduced to little more than a callow playboy, when the man himself was complex and unusual and dynamic. And of course, other AIDS patients show up; hemophiliacs are given a well-meant turn.

There are few acting roles in this film which really reward the actors; for a story which is notable for its people, that’s a sin. Lily Tomlin shines as Selma Dritz, an outspoken and fearless public health worker in San Francisco; Tomlin as Dritz is as perfect a piece of casting as McKellen as Kraus is imperfect. Gere is handsome and mysterious, but we very quickly wonder what for. Alan Alda plays Bob Gallo, a brilliant and arrogant doctor who can’t believe that the French beat him to the AIDS virus first and thus plays dirty in an effort to get more credit; he is nearly as big a villain in this film as Ronald Reagan. And Modine is shrill, coded as relaxed and anti-authority with his floppy ’90s hair and his aversion to ties. Modine’s Francis is an avatar of righteous indignation, and he lives in that space for two hours until it’s hard to feel anything other than fatigue about the movie’s paladin. The problem with making a character such an avatar is that you have to be sure that character is authorized to do it. And in the context of the film, you have to wonder why Francis is the star. Why, when HIV/AIDS was so firmly identified with the LGBT community, does it make the hero of the story a straight doctor whose heart is in the right place, but whose relationship with the disease, compared to Kraus’ or Dugas’, can’t be seen as more than academic. The Don Francis story is a good story. In the right context, it might even be a great one. And the Band Played On just fails on that front. It gives me far too many reasons to ask, “Why him? What makes him so special?” and then never answers them adequately.

What troubles me about And the Band Played On-1993 is that the lesson we should have learned from this movie – that it’s hard to reach people’s hearts about something sincere and real when you’ve got the focus wrong – is a lesson that we’re still trying to learn for films about the gay rights movement. Stonewall, which I didn’t see because I don’t hate myself, seems to have missed the point the same way that And the Band Played On missed the point. For history this sensitive and this meaningful, the people who make the films about it have to be spot on about what’s really important when they create the simulacra. I hope that someone will take another shot at And the Band Played On, and Stonewall, and at any number of stories from the gay rights movement; stories like those deserve to have be on film, our most predictably moving medium. The flip side, though, is that filmmakers can’t have their vision canted in the wrong direction. If your telescope isn’t aimed in the right direction, you aren’t going to see the phenomenon.

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