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.


This highly ironic film is true to Randy Shilts's view of his subject as a "national failure." A wing of the American house was burning down, and all but a few were determinedly looking in the other direction. The U.S. Congress, the President, directors of blood banks, and certain religious talk-shows show up as cowardly, ignorant, or both. Heterosexuals are not the only problem, as the film shows gay men reluctant to give up their sexual revolution, and the gay owners of bathhouses unwilling to voluntarily close their highly profitable centers of infection.

One of the most effective of the film's many uses of actual news footage begins with a jubilant crowd celebrating Reagan's re-election. As the crowd begins shouting "Four more years!" that sound track is maintained and the visuals shift to scenes of disfigured men dying in California hospitals. Four more years, indeed.

The film does well with some of the complexities of science and their political consequences. In Atlanta the research team meets repeatedly to ask, "What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?" The proving, of course, is hard, and the researchers' cooperative challenging gives nonscientists a good look at science being done.

On the political and ironic side, science's high standards for proof repeatedly give narrow interests a respectable-seeming cover for their reluctance to deal with AIDS. Sometimes even good-hearted idealism seems to set things back, as when Don Francis's frustration with the narrow vision of others occasionally leads him to say impolitic things. Over the whole film, in flashbacks through Francis's point of view, hangs the shadow of Ebola, its enigma and awful lethality.


Based on the book by Randy Shilts (And the Band Played On: St. Martin, 1987; Penguin, 1988).

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