A gem: movie tracing AIDS just sparkles 'Band Played On': well done all around


September 11, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Probably nothing short of the second coming of David Letterman could live up to the hype and expectations drummed up for "And the Band Played On," the 2 1/2 -hour HBO film based on Randy Shilts' controversial best seller about AIDS.

Due to the subject matter and the fact that the film has 10 times as many big-name stars as your average feature film, "And the Band Played On," which debuts tonight at 8, has been billed as the TV event of the year.

L In terms of a second coming, it's a bit of a disappointment.

But, in terms of new fall TV programming, it's a must-see. It's well-written, well-acted and huge in scope. It's a reminder of how relevant made-for-TV movies can be in terms of inciting the nation's social conscience.

It's a big, old-fashioned TV movie, the kind they don't make any more at the broadcast networks. And, with its openly gay characters criticizing governmental policies, it shows the kind of courage network movies almost never exhibited.

The producer is Aaron Spelling, once of "Charlie's Angels" and since the producer of tons of programs for Fox, including "Beverly Hills, 90210." Spelling is a TV producer through and through. And, so, the film has a TV feel: Short, choppy scenes plot the spread of the AIDS virus and its detection.

Overall, the film is one long detective story, with Matthew Modine portraying the chief detective, a scientist for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta who's looking for the cause of a disease that acts strangely like Hepatitis B.

On Modine's odyssey, we meet a gay activist played by Ian McKellen, a gay bathhouse owner played surprisingly adroitly by Phil Collins, a San Francisco activist portrayed by Lily Tomlin, and a fame-crazed researcher at the National Institutes of Health portrayed by Alan Alda.

Of the much-publicized appearance by Richard Gere, well, he's on screen maybe a total of 90 seconds in two scenes. Gere plays a Broadway choreographer and director who gets the disease in the early days of the epidemic. He dies, as so many did, from what families and the press termed "a long illness," sidestepping the fact that he was gay and a victim of what was called "gay cancer" in the early 1980s.

The biggest mistake for viewers is to expect too much from the film. Complex problems of research funding, interagency rivalry in Washington, public fear and ignorance can be addressed in books, as Shilts did.

But trying to tell three stories -- the scientific, the political and the JTC public awareness aspects -- in 2 1/2 hours is all but impossible.

A certain superficiality is inevitable. Here it takes the form of newsreel scenes of members of the Reagan administration doing everything but paying attention to AIDS.

Mainly, viewers see Reagan & Co. smiling and waving a lot, while the mounting death toll of AIDS flashes on the screen under their grinning faces.

In one ludicrous shot, former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger is shown smiling as it's announced that he will be getting more money for defense. Say what you will about Weinberger, he didn't give us AIDS and he didn't mount attacks against funding AIDS research. But that is how this TV production depicts the fight for money: with health losing out in the Reagan years.

The best thing about the film is director Roger Spottiswoode's careful tracing of the history of the epidemic and the many false starts at understanding the disease. A middle-schooler could follow it.

And each scene, as tiny as it might be in the long history told here, has an inner dynamic. "And the Band Played On" is a thousand tiny gems -- if not points of light.

It is evident that a lot of people have contributed some of their best work to this film. Tomlin is as good as she's ever been. And Modine is simply superb. Even Gere's all-too-short time on camera is wonderful.

This movie, which is a story of what we didn't know and didn't do 10 years ago, will surely win Emmys. Modine should be an automatic for best dramatic actor next year.

But let's hope viewer reaction takes it beyond the realm of entertainment. Let's hope that those who see "And the Band Played On" understand its message: That we are all diminished by the loss of lives that so many did so little to try to save.


What: "And the Band Played On"

When: 8 tonight; additional play dates are Tuesday, Friday and Sept. 19, 22, 26 and 30.

Where: HBO

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