Robert Alda |

March 6, 2010 by Post Team 

Robert AldaRobert Alda | Alda,I never made it all the way through Randy Shilts’s book so I won’t presume to know whether this film did right by Mr. Shilts. Simply put, this is great drama. The patronizing statements about made-for-tv movies don’t apply here. The drama, sadly, comes from the real events that are depicted–the collective denial about the reality of AIDS as that disease first began appearing in the gay and Haitian communities, the government’s (read “Ronald Reagan’s”) persistent indifference, the professional jealousy within the medical communities vying to be the first to identify the agent (the virus) that causes AIDS, and how human beings resist having their preconceived notions about life challenged (as when a group of gay activists insists on keeping gay bath houses open even as it became apparent that AIDS was spread through sexual contact). This movie really took me back twenty years to when I first read a short article buried somewhere in the middle of the New York Times about a gay-related cancer little realizing how much my life would change from that point onward.

The performances across the board are great. I was especially impressed by Matthew Modine (I’ve liked him since “Birdy” and I like to see him get meaty roles as here), Alan Alda (not the likable mensch from MASH), Ian McClellan, B.D. Wong, and Phil Collins (who knew?).

Aside from some cast biographies this DVD has no other “extras”. Nor does it need any.

This made-for-HBO movie definitely transcends the “disease of the week” genre that it’s part of. Based on the book by Randy Shilts, it chronicles the struggle of science vs. politics vs. morality in the early days of the AIDS crisis. Our point of view character is Dr. Don Francis (Matthew Modine), a passionate young scientist with the Centers for Disease Control. He and his colleagues, both at the CDC and France’s Pasteur Institute, seem to be the only ones who remember that there are real people dying of this mysterious disease. Dr. Robert Gallo (Alan Alda)is one of the few human “villians” of the piece, more interested in writing himself into the history of the disease than in helping anyone. Two other notable performances are those of Lily Tomlin as the tough, no-nonsense Dr. Selma Dritz) and Ian McKellan as Congressional aide Bill Krause, who as part of San Francisco’s gay community, is in the epicenter of the crisis.

Watching this movie, I got very angry. The blood banks, for example, were more worried about money than lives. One of the best scenes in the movie is where Dr. Francis stands up at a meeting and screams at reps from the blood industry, “How many dead hemophiliacs do you need?” before they do something about it. (That was a reenactment of a real outburst, not a fictional event.) An end title tells us that “By the time President Reagan made his first speech on AIDS, 25,000 people had died.” Between events like these and Gallo’s blatant scientific misconduct, it’s hard to avoid being incensed.

The acting is excellent, especially Modine and Alda, who even look a little like the men they’re playing. Modine brings an incredible amount of passion and frustration to Dr. Francis. I especially like McKellan’s character, an older gay man who is not a stereotype. Several familiar character actors show up as supporting players, and some very famous faces (Steve Martin, Richard Gere, Phil Collins, Swoosie Kurtz, and Anjelica Huston) make cameo appearances.

If you’re looking for something light and fluffy, this is not the movie for you. If you want something that will make you think, with some fine acting and a realistic script, this is for you. (Watch this, then go read Shilts’ book.)

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