Roger Spottiswoode

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Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film


This film rendition of Randy Shilts's documentary book by the same name tells the scientific, political, and human story of the first five years of AIDS in the U.S.--roughly 1980-85. Mainly it is a story of dedicated medical researchers groping to understand the horrifying and mysterious new disease and simultaneously battling the public fear and indifference that prevented, during those Reagan years, both public funding of their research and acceptance of their findings.

The central figure is Dr. Don Francis (Matthew Modine), veteran of the World Health Organization's smallpox eradication program, and the horrifying outbreak of hemorrhagic fever along the Ebola River in central Africa in 1976. Working at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta with no money and no space, Francis pursues his theory that AIDS is caused by a sexually-transmitted virus on the model of feline leukemia. His individual antagonist is Dr. Robert Gallo (Alan Alda), the discoverer of HTLV (the human T-cell leukemia virus), who cuts off assistance when he hears that Francis has shared some experimental materials with French researchers. (Gallo sees the French team mainly as his rivals for a Nobel prize.) Gallo finally claims a French retrovirus discovery as his own and thereby acquires a coveted patent.

Besides lab work and big scientific egos, the film shows us lots of grass-roots, shoe-leather epidemiology, especially in San Francisco; the laborious questioning of AIDS patients about their sexual histories, in search of the chain of infection and its beginning, "patient zero." The film's plot ends with Reagan's 1984 re-election and Francis's departure for San Francisco to set up as an independent researcher. Preceding the credits are a number of updates that take AIDS and the story's heroes and villains from 1985 to 1993, all this appearing over stills of famous AIDS victims and crusaders.

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