Movie review: ‘And the Band Played On’

It was more than 20 years ago when HBO Films began making its mark with audiences. You didn’t need a theater to see top-notch talent from Hollywood. Network production companies were stepping up the plate and you found “Barbarians at the Gate” (click here for my review) but also a politically charged story about AIDS and its early controversies. Few Hollywood films have the star power of “And the Band Played On” and it is a powerful work. Check this little-remembered gem out.

‘And the Band Played On’
(1993; 141 minutes; rated R; directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Matthew Modine, Alan Alda and Saul Rubinek)

EXAMINING THE EARLY DAYS OF AIDS

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some more opinion, additional trivia and the updating of links on Nov. 10, 2017.)

The film “And the Band Played On” has enough star material (from Steve Martin to Richard Gere to Alan Alda to Lily Tomlin to a whole gaggle of middle-level actor’s actors) to be considered a big-screen epic. However, it is a made-for-TV production that is one of the early works of HBO films at the dawn of a new age of filmmaking outside the Hollywood studio blueprint.

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And the Band Played On” is the story of the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s and is adapted from a book by Randy Shilts, who was one of the first openly gay reporters whose work reached a mainstream audience. The shows the doctors dealing with the early casualties of the disease and initial efforts to combat the growing menace.

Along the way “And the Band Played On” deals with political realities of the day and how controversy swamped both sides of the AIDS debate and even spilled over into professional back-stabbing by the scientists who ultimately blazed the trail to the medical advances we have seen over the past 30 years. The story traces from the first deaths and dire predictions about the disease from personal, social, medical and political views.

I’m not going to address any of the politics or controversies here (the production of the film was even controversial). I’m doing a review of the actors’ work so that you might judge yourself whether find it and see it again or maybe check it out for the first time. You won’t find better work from some of the actors, despite it being a “TV movie.” Click here for the complete Wiki background about the film. You can also click here for Wiki’s look at the book.

The movie does a great job of distilling a very detailed issue down to just over two hours on screen. It moves efficiently from one controversy to the next and does a great job of humanizing everyone affected by the emergence of AIDS from patients to scientists to health-care professionals. I can’t say how much is true, false or a combination of both, but the film is effective and watchable.

Here’s my take on some of “And the Band Played On’s” principal cast and their characters (note: I am putting quotation marks around the names of real people because they are characters here; most of the individuals are real):

  • Matthew Modine plays “Dr. Don Francis,” who is the key character that is the thread throughout the film. Modine in energetic in his passion for looking at the AIDS issue as science and doing what it takes to battle the disease. He doesn’t bear bureaucrats easily and butts heads big time with the doctor played by Alda. Modine isn’t as effective as his work in “Vision Quest” or “Full Metal Jacket” (click here for my review) but he is as effective as he was in “Married to the Mob” (click here for my review) and “Memphis Belle.”
  • Alda plays “Dr. Robert Gallo,” who is a top U.S. researcher and jumps into the AIDS issue quickly. Alda does a good job conveying his character as egotistical, aloof and self-promoting. Although he would ultimately ruin the “Hawkeye” character he created on TV’s “M*A*S*H” with political correctness, Alda is as good here as he was in “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” and Neil Simon’s “California Suite” (click here for my review).
  • Saul Rubinek plays “Dr. Jim Curran,” who is the middle manager at the Centers for Disease Control that must balance science, a budget and partisan politics. Rubinek, after Modine, is the backbone of the film and he does a career best here. He’s also been in “Wall Street” and nearly as good in a great role in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” as he is here.
  • Richard Masur plays “Dr. William W. Darrow,” who is the CDC staffer that makes an early connection about the spread of the disease. Masur, like other playing CDC roles, is pitch-perfect as the academic pursuing a disease taking its toll. He’s also been in “Risky Business” and was wonderful in both the teen flick “License to Drive” (click here for my review) as well as “Head Office” (click here for my review).
  • Charles Martin Smith plays “Dr. Harold Jaffe,” who personally inspects San Francisco’s bathhouses. Like Masur, you believe that Martin is a scientist on the trail to solving a medical mystery. He does a better job here than he did in “The Buddy Holly Story” but isn’t as good as he was in “American Graffiti” or “The Untouchables.”
  • Glenne Headly plays “Dr. Mary Guinan,” who is another member of the CDC team. Headly is another who offers smooth, competent work here and she has also been in films such as “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (click here for my review) as well as TV shows such as “Monk.”
  • Ian McKellan plays “Bill Krauss,” a gay lawmaker in Congress who continually fights an uphill battle for federal funding to fight AIDS. McKellan gives probably the best pure acting effort here and is probably best known from his work on “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” franchises.

The bulk of the film’s supporting stars have specific but limited roles. They include:

  • Steve Martin is unnamed and whose brother dies of AIDS. The scientists seek his help and he reluctantly gives it. It’s a very small role for Martin, who was also in “Parenthood” (click here for my review) as well as “The Man With Two Brains.”
  • Jeffrey Nordling plays “Gaetan Dugas,” the so-called “Patient Zero” who is at the center of the scientists’ diagram of the people spreading AIDS through sexual contact. Nordling is exceptionally smooth here with his French accent (Dugas was a French-Canadian airline steward who traveled the world) and sophisticated manner. He is better here than he was in the TV movie “Flight 93” or “Tron: Legacy.”
  • Donal Logue plays AIDS activist “Bobbi Campbell,” who is outspoken about bringing the disease to the public’s attention. Logue would go on to be in “The Tao of Steve” and “Sneakers” with Robert Redford (click here for my review).
  • Lily Tomlin plays “Dr. Selma Dritz,” who is with the San Francisco health department and helps Smith navigate his way through bathhouses. Tomlin, like McKellan gives a pure turn here of her considerable talent. She has also been in “Nine to Five” as well as being nominated for an Oscar in “Nashville.”
  • Musician Phil (“Genesis”) Collins squeezes his way in this long list of real actors as he plays “Eddie Papasano,” who runs bathhouses in San Francisco and doesn’t want to close them when the CDC makes that recommendation. Collins doesn’t do much, but he was a “name” at the time. He has 13 acting credits including “Hook.”
  • Whew! I could just keep going and going … and going. Click here for the IMDb.com page listing all the actors in the film.

Although first released at the Montreal Film Festival, “And the Band Played On” was broadcast by HBO in September of 1993 and therefore does not figure in the top box office hits of that year. Just in case you’re wondering, the No. 1 film for 1993 at theaters was “Jurassic Park” with $357 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Here are the other films from 1993 that I’ve reviewed for my blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Directly from com: “Produced despite heavy misgivings in the film industry. When film star Richard Gere accepted a small role, he broke the taboos – at grave risk to his career – about both the subject and major film stars taking small parts in TV productions. Subsequently Steve Martin, Alan Alda, Phil Collins and Anjelica Huston were willing to appear.”
  • NBC reportedly spent two years trying to develop Shilts’ book into a TV mini-series, but finally withdrew and HBO picked it up. Some claimed at the time that the controversies about AIDS caused NBC to withdraw, but others said that the network was unable to develop it into the mini-series as intended and didn’t want at TV movie out of it.
  • Directly from com: “Mary Guinan was Nevada’s State Health Officer in the early 2000s. She has since retired.”
  • Gere’s character – a Broadway choreographer – is never named, but it is assumed that it was Michael Bennett, who created and choreographed “A Chorus Line” before he died of AIDS in 1987.
  • Finally and directly from com: “In one scene, Don Francis (Matthew Modine) mentions that Dr. Robert Gallo would win a Nobel Prize, if his retrovirus research turned out to be successful in finding what causes A.I.D.S. That statement almost happened in reality, but in 2008, Gallo was excluded among the winners for such work, and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given to Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (played by Patrick Bauchau and Nathalie Baye, respectively) for their work on the discovery of H.I.V.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner
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full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples
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