Randy Shilts’ monumental book about AIDS has been impressively assembled by scripter Arnold Schulman, who’s based his dramatization on facts and “elements” from the book and from historical records, as well as creating fictionalized characters and situations. Unfolding like a sad detective story, the $ 8 million-plus production, directed to varying degrees of effect by Roger Spottiswoode, points up the politics as well as the horror of AIDS. As a TV movie about a highly sensitive subject, overall it’s a moving experience. Film premieres Sept. 2 at the Montreal Film Festival, then begins airing on HBO Sept. 11.
Skipping over intricate details of medical research, the telefilm takes measure of the battles against red tape, egos, lack of funding and countless self-interests. The telefilm mirrors the struggles, recounted in Shilts’ book, as researchers in France and the U.S. fought to isolate and identify the virus despite public resistance and governmental neglect.
As a narrative thread to tie up Shilts’ sprawling story, Schulman uses real-life researcher Don Francis (Matthew Modine), an impassioned hero who joins Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control team in 1980. The plot dramatizes the medical frustrations and small victories of Francis’ CDC associates, including Dr. Mary Guinan (a standout Glenne Headly).
Doctors and health officials in N.Y., L.A. and S.F. encounter patients with the unknown disease and begin the long hunt to nail it down. Francis spots a clue on a Pac Man machine; other points add up, and the “gay cancer” finally gets a name.
The vidpic underscores the appalling lack of coin for research. Hospitals turn away the sick, blood banks won’t spend the money to screen blood. Self-promoting individuals and interest groups are shown ruthlessly defending their positions; federal government indifference is noted with selective shots of President Reagan.
If Modine isn’t always persuasive as the scrappy doctor, he does have the idealist look and determined combativeness. Played with assurance, Sir Ian McKellen’s Bill Kraus, liaison between San Francisco gays and their congressman, becomes a near-symbolic figure in the telepic as his health begins to fail.
Aspects of gay life depicted in “Band” include Kraus’ low-key homelife with his partner (B.D. Wong); a dying, flamboyant transvestite (“Angels in America’s” Stephen Spinella, who, like most of the patients, looks too robust under the AIDS makeup); and an unconvincingly staged rally against the closing of S.F. bathhouses.
The vidpic catches various phases of gay life openly and objectively, yet one of the most touching moments involving ignorance about homosexuality is voiced by a woman whose hemophiliac husband has contracted AIDS.
The use of celebs in cameos to draw audiences might have been a distracting gimmick, but most of the actors melt into the drama: Swoosie Kurtz, in one of the more poignant segs, plays a woman who learns she’s contracted AIDS from a transfusion; an expressive Richard Gere is a composite character who sees his grim future in two of the vidpic’s most eloquent moments; Lily Tomlin limns a courageous S.F. public health official; Steve Martin is awkward in his bit, and Anjelica Huston’s appearance is absurdly brief. Alan Alda as Dr. Robert Gallo, laying claim to discovery of the AIDS virus, gives a solid study of a driven man.
Though a number of scenes are expertly directed, Spottiswoode surprisingly runs into difficulties with some straightforward moments: the CDC’s first meeting with Francis, a choreographer (Gere) in a hotel-lobby encounter, Tomlin’s style of talking her way into a bathhouse inspection, etc.
“Band” has been in the offing since 1989, being optioned and eventually dropped by both ABC and NBC. Spelling, linked to the ABC deal, conferred with Robert Cooper, HBO Pictures senior VP, and the project was on the way.
But not without its problems. Director Spottiswoode succeeded Joel Schumacher and Richard Pearce, who left for various reasons. Recently, HBO denied Spottiswoode’s claim he was fired from post-production, with Modine joining in the public fray over concern about the content and handling of the issues, but all sides have since expressed amicability and satisfaction with the end result.
The vidpic’s shrewd use of film clips and of L.A. locales is excellent. Numbers flashed occasionally across the screen denoting increasing AIDS cases and deaths again define the telefilm’s theme.
Paul Elliott’s camerawork is well composed, and Carter Burwell’s low-key score is on target. Victoria Paul’s design is imaginative, Lois Freeman-Fox’s editing is terrif.
If there are lapses, director Spottiswoode’s engrossing, powerful work still accomplishes its mission: Shilts’ book, with all its shock, sorrow and anger, has been transferred decisively to the screen.