"The Ryan White Story" (tonight, Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42 at 9 p.m.) is the tale of the courageous 13-year-old Indiana hemophiliac and AIDS patient (Lukas Haas) who had to go to court to be allowed to go to school. Many of his neighbors, disbelieving the evidence that AIDS can't be spread through casual contact, were afraid of young Ryan.
Like many a TV movie, this one focuses almost exclusively on the hero's perspective. The officials and neighbors who opposed White's return to school are depicted as largely anonymous yahoos and airheads.
While this would probably be an accurate description of many of them, the lack of a halfway articulate defense of their viewpoint undermines the drama. For example, we don't even see the scene in which the school officials informed Ryan's mother that he wouldn't be welcomed back.
Instead, writers Phil Penningroth and John Herzfeld concentrated on Ryan's personal ordeal--and those of his mother (Judith Light) and sister (Nikki Cox). On top of the devastating diagnosis of AIDS, the family had to face hostile neighbors and nosy reporters, night and day. They lost several rounds in court before they won. Mother and son took turns bolstering each other's strength. (Ryan's father doesn't make an appearance in the film.)
The performances of Haas, Light and Cox are carefully measured, even understated, but genuinely affecting in the end. George C. Scott gets in a few licks as the Whites' attorney, and the cast also includes sensitive contributions from George Dzundza, Sarah Jessica Parker, Grace Zabriskie and--in the role of a fellow AIDS patient--the real Ryan White.
Ironically, the real Ryan looks so much more ravaged than Haas that one suspects the film makers somewhat sanitized the grim medical details. Director Herzfeld also goosed the opening and closing of the film with a visual style that's almost hyped-up enough for MTV. But the razzmatazz doesn't damage the heart of the film.