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TV REVIEW : 'Band' Plays a Heartfelt, but Sanitized, Tune : HBO's ambitious project taps out the dark, foreboding rhythms of a mystery. But pristine idealism and the lack of human contact between gays rob the characters of depth.

September 10, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

"And the Band Played On" adds its own snare-drum resonance to the AIDS catastrophe, beating elements of Randy Shilts' journalism into a passionate, incisive condemnation of the government's public health policy regarding this epidemic that has ravenously devoured its way through the '80s and early '90s like a global Pac Man.

Only someone with a heart of granite would not be moved or angered on some level by HBO's ambitious movie (airing at 8 p.m. Saturday). Yet when this AIDS memorial plays no longer--having ended with a swelling, high-concept instant replay of celebrity victims surfacing on the screen like a gauzy who's-who--you have the feeling you've seen this story and heard this drummer before.

Approached by producer Aaron Spelling, HBO embraced "And the Band Plays On" only after ABC and NBC had cast it out, apparently fearful of getting singed by controversy. Despite NBC having broken the small-screen AIDS barrier way back in 1985 with its movie "An Early Frost"--and perhaps a dozen subsequent movies and series episodes having tackled the same topic--TV and AIDS obviously remain a combustible combination in the eyes of many industry executives.

It was Shilts' acclaimed 1987 book of the same title that catalogued the AIDS epidemic's infancy, attaching bold exclamation points to the stupidity, indifference, prejudice and politics that encumbered efforts to identify and develop a treatment for this horrific virus.

Like the book, HBO's newsreel-woven movie, written by Arnold Schulman, focuses on the band of pioneering anti-AIDS researchers and activists who were fiercely pugnacious at a time when the virus was known merely as "gay pneumonia" or "gay cancer" or "that new gay disease." As the investigation creeps along, the virus's death toll rises spectacularly, its victims dropping away like blips vanishing from a radar screen.

Director Roger Spottiswoode (the third director on the project) has a way with moods. He creates some stunningly symbolic sequences here, one centering on a San Francisco choreographer (a composite character played by Richard Gere) who has just learned that he has AIDS. Trance-like, he watches the stage--where his dancers are holding a black-clad body above their heads in a haunting production number--as if witnessing his own burial rite.

At its best, "And the Band Played On" taps out the dark, foreboding rhythms of a mystery, as Don Francis (the Centers for Disease Control researcher who is the movie's designated hero of heroes) and his underfunded colleagues and allies slowly pull back the sheet, inch by inch, revealing the full cadaver. It wasn't named AIDS until 1983.

Assigned to root out the sources of AIDS in the early '80s, Francis (efficiently played by Matthew Modine) initially gets zinged in a cross fire of clashing egos, ideologies and agendas. A general apathy pervades the federal government, media and public, moreover, and initially among gays, the predominant fear is that their privacy would be the biggest casualty in any probe of the human causes of this strange new illness.

"I would rather die as a human being than continue living as a freak," an angry gay activist shouts at a public forum. Like an expert tracker, though, Francis traces the AIDS that has decimated one particular cluster of gay men to a sexually prolific French Canadian airline steward.

There is a lot of material to draw together, and the complexities of Shilts' book would challenge almost any scenarist. Thus, history and storytelling sometimes collide here, with characters occasionally mouthing exposition instead of realistic dialogue. And oddly, despite the theme and its implicit intimacy, there is very little affectionate touching--and no kissing--between homosexuals, as if TV's sanitizers had stepped in and quarantined gay characters from the reality of their sexual orientation.

This movie is nothing if not cameo-studded. Besides Gere's doomed choreographer, Anjelica Huston, Steve Martin, Phil Collins, Swoosie Kurtz and David Clennon make brief appearances, and Lily Tomlin, Glenne Headly, Ian McKellen, Richard Masur, Saul Rubinek and Alan Alda perform ably in larger roles.

What "And the Band Played On" needs more of are not good actors, obviously, but characters who have depth and texture as well as sheen, for, at its worst, "And the Band Played On" appears to congeal disparate elements into a single gelatin. The AIDS-fighting good guys are so uniformly good and rigidly conventional that they present a sort of monolithically pastel image that undermines their believability. Francis, in particular, is such an Eagle Scout that you envision him helping even little old government bureaucrats across a busy street.

Despite his Machiavellian darkness, Alda's Robert Gallo is almost a welcome blight on this milky landscape of pristine idealism. Although self-destructive bickering among San Francisco gays also was costly to the early anti-AIDS effort, the main targets for impaling here are the neglectful Reagan Administration (for callously looking the other way) and Gallo, a noted researcher depicted as being a cynical, selfish egomaniac much more interested in personal glory than in fighting AIDS.

With Ronald Reagan seen briefly as an abstract figure inhaling purified air in his own hermetically sealed White House bubble, Gallo's bitter clashes with Francis and competing researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris are what drive this movie toward its inevitable, somber conclusion.

The epidemic itself remains a sad story in progress.

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