“And the Band Played On” (1993)

by A.J. Hakari

It’s Blog-a-Thon time again! Throughout November, I’ll be reviewing four movies suggested to me by four fellow film freaks: Marcey Papandrea (of SuperMarcey.com), Bede Jermyn (also of SuperMarcey.com), Sam Inglis (of 24 Frames Per Second), and Mike Ewins (of E-Film Blog). The theme of the month is forgotten ’90s films, so check my pals’ respective sites to read their takes on what I picked for them.

First off is Bede’s selection, And the Band Played On, and here’s why he chose it for me:

“Over the last decade, the U.S. cable channel HBO — besides making TV shows — has made some great quality TV films or mini-series that were on the level of (and, in some cases, better than) their theatrical counterparts. One of the earliest TV films that the channel made was the 1993 film And the Band Played On, which was a docu-drama that explored the early days of the AIDS virus, as seen from the eyes of everyday people, politicians, the gay community, and the scientists who are doing all that they can to learn more about the virus. It’s a terrific and powerful film that has an amazing all-star cast of actors who you wouldn’t expect to find in a TV film. Hopefully, A.J. will feel the same way about it as well.”

And now…the review…

 

Movies about looming societal issues are about as critic-proof as the newest franchise blockbuster. Who wants to be the bad guy and say negative things about a story seeking to raise awareness about a hot, far-reaching topic? Well, context and execution are ultimately what decide if a film is genuinely fighting the good fight or if it’s guilt-tripping its way into some cash and prestige. Fortunately, And the Band Played On is no shoddy Disease of the Week production. It covers a very grave concern through a multitude of perspectives, and although this wide scope doesn’t hold up all the time, it pays off in a flick that skews solemn more than gunning for cheap dramatic tricks.

This made-for-HBO presentation focuses on the growing prominence of what we now know as the AIDS virus in the early 1980s. With the disease striking mainly homosexual men, few with the power to get to the bottom of this mystery illness are keen to dive headfirst into a still taboo realm. But when the death toll surges and the gay community is further stigmatized as a result, the call for change can no longer be ignored. Dr. Don Francis (Matthew Modine), a CDC veteran who helped contain an Ebola outbreak, ends up leading the charge, bent on cracking the virus’ genetic code with the help of some ragtag, barely-funded fellow scientists. But between the disease’s murky nature and the agendas of various parties, research doesn’t come so smoothly, pushing Francis and company even harder to understand this new threat before more damage is done.

And the Band Played On hit the airwaves in 1993, the same year another high-profile AIDS drama, Philadelphia, was released in theaters. The latter remains an incredible film, but of the two, it’s definitely the most “showy.” Despite boasting a big ensemble cast that has names like Steve Martin, Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, and Bud Cort to its credit, And the Band Played On shifts them into tiny roles that often last no longer than a single, brief scene. It’s not in the movie’s nature to emphasize huge stars proving that those crying lessons really paid off, but rather to place the general frustration over both trying to comprehend the AIDS epidemic and warning the general public at center stage. While And the Band Played On has its fair share of emotional outbursts and such, it earns them, since director Roger Spottiswoode so compellingly taps into the anger and hopelessness one would feel when unable to stop a catastrophe from spreading even more.

Our story unfolds over a running time of close to two and a half hours, which seems daunting but is actually a pittance for something with this much scale. Because of it, And the Band Played On has a tendency to condense characters and plot threads into digestible chunks that skirt the broader conflict at hand (though never to a wholly simplistic degree). So yeah, Alan Alda all but twirls a handlebar mustache as a scientist who wants to use AIDS as his ticket to even more accolades, and it’s disappointing to see the flick end on a dime and montage its way through the last ten minutes (as effective as said montage is). But the earnestness behind it all really pulls through, helped as much by Modine’s low-key but absorbing lead performance as by a script that’s more on than off.

Though it could’ve done so on a number of occasions, And the Band Played On resists the urge to preach its lessons and shame viewers for not doing anything to help. It doesn’t date itself by treating AIDS as the latest Big Important Thing to fuss over until the next comes along, instead attending to the emotions experienced when folks from all walks of life are trying to get a grip on the impossible. As wise and well-acted as films like this can be, And the Band Played On is a product of its time whose impact will last far longer than that.

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