Issue Essay

A Fight for Many, Fought by Few

[1]  Hollywood is no longer just a name, it is a business, a living entity holding America’s people in its grasp, and it is not about to let them go.  Gradually taking on more responsibility and trying to build up its reputation over the years, Hollywood has progressively assumed the position of history-teller for the American public.  This role, whether or not an appropriate one for an industry such as Hollywood to tackle, has catapulted actors and actresses into high paying, high visibility positions.  History has and will continue to be one of the main subjects that the movie industry has been fascinated with.  It is an alive and very fragile subject that, through its multi-dimensional character, requires careful attention by everyone involved in the project.  Whenever Hollywood tackles an historical topic, whether portraying a non-disputable factual event or only a vaguely one, the industry is bound to encounter dispute and criticism.

[2]     Regardless of how careful the director, producer, and actors are at being loyal to the subject matter, then, the question still remains whether or not Hollywood is a legitimate resource for historical matter.  Is it possible for a dramatic, high priced and glitzy medium to be honest and true to its subject matter in such a way that viewers are not confused but more educated walking out than they were walking in?  Is the Movie Theater any place for history to be learned?  Directors fight and argue that indeed Hollywood is equally as reliable and legitimate a source as other "texts."  The movies provide a more immediate resource, allowing history to change from the dreaded school subject to an appealing topic.  Hollywood ties faces, people, and their stories into an historical event, making the movie credible but, more important to the moviemakers, enjoyable.  The debate over cinematic history still remains, and it will continue to challenge Hollywood, constantly forcing the industry to make the best possible movies, producing historical epics on the big screen, making history a universal and personable subject.

[3]     In 1993, a small-time director at HBO Productions thought it was about time that a movie was made discussing the broad, taboo topic of the AIDS epidemic.  Roger Spottiswoode was the director, and he took author Randy Shilts’ controversial journal And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (1987) and turned it into a movie.  Spottiswoode took the challenge facing Hollywood straight on and was bold enough to attempt a project that had been passed over and rejected for six years straight.  From the beginning to end And The Band Played On was a fight.  Spottiswoode fought for HBO to take the project on, and he fought with Hollywood to try to entice actors to participate in it.  The fight continued after the release of the cable TV movie, with critics and the public simply not wanting to know or be informed of the truth.

[4]     With controversy surrounding the production of the movie, the fight seeped into the movie and its evidence in the story.  The portrayal of the actors and the fight that each character undergoes is an illustration of the fight that AIDS forced our country to face in the early 1980’s.  With Richard Gere’s participation spurring a flocking of the big-named stars And The Band Played On became one of the first star-studded made-for-TV movies.  Considering that the topic happened to be one that the majority of the American public was still unwilling to even discuss, let alone watch, its birth and relentless claim of human life, Band opened up new pathways for television programming as well as widening the realm of acceptable subject matter.

[5]     Giant movie production companies had rejected Shilts' book whenever asked to turn his chronicle into a big screen reality.  It was a ripe subject, too ripe in fact, and no production company, unless willing to commit political and social suicide, would even consider taking on such a loaded topic.  The AIDS epidemic rushed into the United States at such an uncontrollable and undetected rate, that it stormed into society from the blindside.  AIDS infected everyone and everything that interrupted its path, claiming the lives of people, the medical community, the political spectrum, and the bureaucracy all at once.  It came to a point where everyone and everything was at war. It was a war of political banter, social awareness, moral justice, and medical progress.

[6]      And The Band Played On is a meticulous report of this fight, originating from the eyes, ears, and observations of Randy Shilts over the years of the emerging epidemic.  When Spottiswoode came onto the scene, the two men worked closely together, trying to give the movie the type of credibility Shilts’ written transcript received.  Understanding the task at hand, and struggling with the need to portray the constant fight that all involved with the AIDS epidemic faced, the HBO production sought to tell the forgotten and ignored victim’s stories; the film put a face to a disease that most wanted to only forget.

[7]     Facing what most directors face, Spottiswoode could not escape the reality that in film drama is the crucial factor in creating a successful production.  An audience’s attention span is relatively short; in order to capture a viewer’s interest a director must provide a saga, a detailed story with twists and turns, with characters who involve the viewer in their lives.  And The Band Played On is the illustration of a continual struggle, a never-ending fight that no one seems to win in the end.  Textually and abstractly, the fight occurs on both spectrums.  Dr. Robert Gallo and Dr. Don Francis, played by Alan Alda and Matthew Modine respectively, are the focus of the fight between good and evil.

[8]      Gallo and Francis battle head-to-head throughout the entire movie, fighting between justice and personal achievement.  Clashing in a push/pull relationship, Gallo fights for his fame and internationally acclaimed reputation, while Francis simply is trying to fight the virus.  Francis, working for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is dedicated to the efforts in identifying and isolating the disease that is ravaging the gay population nationwide.  Desperate and open to any and all ideas and efforts, Francis works alongside the French scientists and doctors who also are desperate to locate the unknown disease.  When the French are successful and Francis chooses to further help their efforts, Gallo loses his patience and refuses to work alongside Francis again.

 [9]     During one confrontation between the two men, Francis turns to Gallo and asks: “Oh, so it’s you against the French now?  I thought it was us all against the disease?”  Dr. Robert Gallo is a pompous asshole, constantly seeking out any and all possible public recognition and praise for his medical efforts at The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.  Although undeniably a doctor of highest esteem and respect, his failure to play by the rules and instead create his own has brought him constant conflict and tension throughout the medical community.  Insisting that he was the sole discoverer of the retrovirus causing AIDS, Gallo publicly took all of the credit, causing the French to charge Gallo with unethical conduct in the AIDS research.  A moral fight was turned into a legal one, one that Gallo ended up barely escaping on a slight technicality.  The tension between Modine and Alda is ripe in context, and the viewers vividly feel the icy nature of their relationship.

[10]     Matthew Modine plays a multi-faceted character in that Francis must face so many fights at one time.  One of the most eerie is the inner conflict he battles between his memories of his time while in Africa working on the Ebola Virus and the position he is in while working on the AIDS virus.  The similarity between the two is frighteningly evident, and his same feelings of helplessness and loss of hope haunt him as well. Beginning the movie, we see Francis entering a village in Africa that had been completely wiped out by the Ebola Virus, including the American doctor that had been assigned to that particular village. The impact that the death and destruction has on Francis lingers in his subconscious.  Witnessing the death of the last remaining woman in the village, Francis feels the reality hit full force that he has no control of the situation, but it is the virus that has commanded complete control.

[11]     Returning to the United States, Francis is immediately assigned to the CDC, in aiding in the efforts of identifying an unknown deadly disease popping up in homosexual men across the nation.  As the similarities between this disease and the Ebola Virus begin to be more apparent, the flashbacks begin to haunt Francis.  He struggles with his mind’s tendency to convince him that he is involved in a hopelessly losing battle.  He struggles with his boss, Dr. Jim Curran, whose demands consist of: “What do we think? What do we know?  What can we prove?”  And he fights against such structure, trying to fight a disease without dealing with the logistics always involved in such a process.  These logistics include bureaucratic red tape and political resistance.  Not prepared, nor willing to deal with what in his eyes is such petty resistance, Francis is unable to understand the lack of dedication to fighting the disease rather than fighting each other.  The vivid flashbacks of his time spent in the Ebola River hauntingly remind him to not allow the same thing to happen in this case.  He’s seen the effects that an infectious and unidentifiable killer can have on a community not willing to respect the power of the virus.  The U.S. is making no effort to admit the danger involved in the unknown disease. Once located, the government still continues to turn the other way, refusing to recognize the killing potential that AIDS contains in its chemical makeup.

[12]     Recognizing the fact that one man cannot take on a country, Francis has to learn to work with the system, regardless of how frustrating and uncooperative the system is. The system is bigger, stronger, and has its proverbial claws in areas that the majority of the public is totally unaware of.  Political and bureaucratic red tape confines the different branches of a vast society and keeps every member struggling to find the loopholes that the system has already made sure to hide.  How is it possible to measure morality versus monetary power?

[13]     Throughout the film, the red tape continues to botch up any of the efforts, however small, that are made bringing the medical field closer to isolating the virus.  Dr. Curran represents the bureaucracy and is in constant struggle with Francis, who is so adamantly resistant to the hierarchy of the system.  Curran understands the rules of the game; he is in a position where he has to placate those above him; he knows how to sugarcoat things and make them sound more appealing and less deadly, a project that in his line of work seems close to impossible to do.  He has to watch new diseases arise in the U.S. and understand that funding for research and medical treatment is less than likely to be provided.

[14]     This aspect of And The Band Played On is one of the most dynamic and poignant.  The resistance to funding was so strong that simple microscopes crucial to do research correctly and accurately were impossible to get.  Curran had been nose deep in that reality for a while and had come to terms with it, whereas Francis was new on the scene.  In unfamiliar territory, he was of the belief that it was the disease that was of highest priority not cost efficiency.  In a dramatic and emotional confrontation between the medical doctors and the blood banks representatives, Francis demands: “How many dead Hemophiliacs do you need?  How many people have to die to make it cost efficient for you people to do something about it?  A hundred?  A thousand?  Give us a number so we won’t annoy you again until the amount of money you begin spending on lawsuits makes it more profitable for you to save lives than to kill them.”

[15]     It is at this point in the movie that the disease becomes real and the sting of that reality is harsher than before.  It is here that we become aware of the fact that AIDS was a disease that could have been prevented or at the very least controlled.  Because of the lack of funding and refusal to admit the gravity of the issue at hand, the virus instead took millions of lives, both in death and in providing haunting memories for the living.  Even after it became clear that blood banks around the country were infecting people with the AIDS virus due to contaminated blood, the blood banks continued to refuse to start using the Hepatitis B test, the only test found to be 88% effective in identifying the AIDS virus.  In a conference between members of the blood banks, a doctor asks the question: “Let me ask you this – when doctors start acting like businessmen who can the people turn to for doctors?”  It is striking dialogue like this where Spottiswoode makes sure that his viewers cannot deny the obtuse nature of the medical, political, and bureaucratic fields.

[16]     We cannot examine And The Band Played On without recognizing the fight of the most dramatic and emotional nature, the fight between patient and disease, the fight between life and death. Randy Shilts’ chronicle was one of a kind in 1987 when it was published and even though it took over six years for a production company to tackle its heavy subject matter, when HBO agreed to take the project on AIDS was still not considered to be an issue to be discussed at the dinner table.  Band was one of the first movies with a star-studded cast portraying such a controversial and uncomfortable topic. AIDS, in 1993, was still considered to be a deadly disease.  When patients found out they were infected with the virus, it was considered to be a death sentence; a life expectancy of only a few years was the longest, most promising scenario.  That is no longer the case. When confirmed to be HIV-positive, although patients are not overjoyed or pleased by any means, they no longer feel the Grim Reaper lurking over their shoulders in the shadows, waiting to attack at the least expected moment.  Technology and the increase in medical funding for research has catapulted the AIDS virus into the top priority spot in the medical world that has added an extra ten years onto the lives of the infected.  People tested positive are no longer dying but living with the disease.  They cannot escape that their lives will be shorter than most, but they are no longer sitting in a hospital bed, watching their bodies deteriorate at an incredulous speed.  They are out playing basketball, acting in movies, starting foundations funding AIDS research.  They are mothers, father, sisters, brothers, and they are busy active people.

[17]      And The Band Played On is a chronicle of the birth of the deadly disease, and the patients depicted in this movie are not living with the disease but are dying within months of being diagnosed.  The picture that is painted in this film is not a pretty or pleasant one.  We see patients dying from rare cat diseases or infections that only baby lambs get and are shot when they do.  The sick have skin lesions all over their bodies; they suffer from pneumonia and can hardly walk let alone breathe fresh air.  The beginning stages of this virus were not pleasant, and Spottiswoode captures the severity of the illness with a mesmerizing and touching approach.  Today people almost expect people with AIDS to be lying in a hospital bed dying, having given up hope for survival a while ago.  While this was the case during the early stages of the disease, a time period depicted in this film, that is no longer the case and the public needs to recognize the vast improvements that have been made, striving towards finding a cure for AIDS.

[18]     American History has been a school subject drilled into the brains and subconscious of students.  Taught from the earliest years on up, students reach a point where they know the facts and can dictate them to any teacher if ever challenged.  “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the Ocean blue" is a saying that has become a state of mind.  The Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S came running to the rescue to finally end WWII.  These are people and events in history that have become a part of our lives, our mentality, and understanding of who we are and what this country stands for.

[19]     But how do we know that fact is fact and fiction is fiction?  How can we be sure that what our 7th grade history teacher told us to believe is actually what happened?  Who is to say that Mr. Macmillan is absolutely right?  Columbus was a pompous, egotistical sailor who was looking for the orient and its rich resources and America happened to get in his way.  Thomas Jefferson contradicted himself on more than a few occasions, including making himself into a hypocrite for having owned slaves.  Thousands of Jews were persecuted and killed before the U.S. even cared to pay any attention.  It wasn’t until we lost thousands of Americans at Pearl Harbor that we started to care and declared war on the same day.

[20]     History, as we get older, takes on different, more personal meanings.  It begins to mean our personal history, our role and participation in history, and what kind of direct impact current history has on our lives as citizens of the United States and as human beings of this world.  We begin to look beyond textbooks and start searching for our own answers to our questions.  Film has been as equally fascinated with history and its unique element of being able to interpret the many facets of it any way one chooses to. The written word has power, but when an image is flashed across a big screen, the message has twice as much power and influence over its audience.  Little patience and attention is required, which makes the director's job that much more complicated, knowing that he/she must capture an audience in quick 1-2 minute scenes.  There must be action, drama, there must be a story to follow and characters with whom the audience can relate to.

[21]     With all of these requirements and more, is it fair to expect a film to do any sort of justice to a complicated subject such as history?  When history is written, critics accept it, as do people. The written word has this unwritten rule of absolute legitimacy, but once the word changes form into an image and is projected onto a screen, its legitimacy is lost and immediately is open to criticism.  Film undergoes more skepticism than most mediums, and with such high standards and pressures you would think that the industry would shy away from such a challenge.

[22]     In fact, Hollywood accepts the challenge and in turn produces directors like Oliver Stone who throw the challenge back into the laps of the American people, asking them to be the judge, forcing them to second guess the factual norms that have been drilled into our heads since our first years in school.  Many say that history has no place in the theater, yet if the books are mistelling history then why can’t theaters attempt to do a better job?  Words exist in their own right, and film and theater are their own medium, with different expectations and guidelines to follow completely. Very often film takes on the role of being the storyteller of the untold story. And The Band Played On is a story that was never told.

[23]     Randy Shilts took on the responsibility himself to document the emergence of the AIDS epidemic.  When Shilts and HBO Productions combined efforts, the movie was still depicting a time, a disease, and a state of mind, which most didn’t want to remember.  The trouble was that it wasn’t a story of a past time.  Band is a docudrama of current history, of a period that modern day America is finding itself directly in the middle of.  When Shilts’ chronicle was published, while critics reviewed the book, middle-stream America seemed to be looking the other way.  It is a lot easier to not buy a book and even ignore its existence, than it is to pretend that a movie, which has half of Hollywood in it, doesn’t even matter.  Movies reach into the small crevices that books simply cannot reach.  Although at times such a powerful and all-encompassing position is taken advantage of, film’s influence over the public is one of crucial importance because of the many branches of society that it reaches out to.

[24]     Roger Spottiswoode’s screen adaptation of And The Band Played On is a noble attempt to bring a taboo issue out into the open and shed a little bit of light on the injustice of the system that had the audacity to try and brush a deadly virus under the political carpet.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Victoria Douglass Hatch, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.

This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in
electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access.  Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other
terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.