Good films about HIV/AIDS are few and far between. Ten years to be exact.
Naming films about HIV/AIDS is difficult, let alone naming such films generally agreed upon to be good. A user-compiled list on IMDB of “HIV-related movies” suggests such films as Girl, Positive and Go Towards the Light, starring the likes of Jenny Garth and Linda Hamilton. Both posters for these movies look like People Magazine ads for mid-’90s serial dramas. Not a good sign.
Most people would be hard-pressed to name any beyond the Big Two of HIV/AIDS films: Philadelphia, released in 1993, and Angels in America (made for television movie adapted from a play) which first aired in 2003. Following the 10-year pattern, 2013 gives us Dallas Buyer’s Club which despite what I had expected, deserves to join it’s predecessors.
As of this writing, Dallas Buyer’s Club is holding a 91 on Rotten Tomatoes. Philadelphia has a 71. Angels in America holds an 80. Not to give too much consequence to the online critics club (that’s right, my opinion is to be taken with a grain of salt, people!), and fully taking into account that this rating is based solely on those of us privileged enough to have attended a pre-screening and who are just so desperate to like something for once, I would argue that the rating is mostly deserved and is unlikely fall too much once the philistine public starts weighing in. Does Dallas Buyers Club deserve a higher rating than the dual titans which tower over all others? Well, let’s take a look.
Philadelphia: Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks): Tom Hanks as Tom Hanks with AIDS. Nothing new here.
Angels in America: GOTCHA! No main character. Ensemble (you have to pronounce that with the “bluh” sound at the end, not “bull”). This is a theatre thing. It’s makes for lots of editing and mostly not connecting with the majority of the characters because everyone basically exists only to illustrate a simplified duality of human nature. If the Emmys are to be believed, Al Pacino plays the main character. Totally hate-worthy big-shot homophobic philandering alpha-male who happens to have sex with men. Should have been played by Meryl Streep.
Dallas Buyer’s Club: Ron Woodruff, lean, mean Texas hustlin’, drinkin’, bettin’, rodeoin’, electrician… -in’. Also addicted to drugs and entirely homophobic. Contracts HIV through unprotected sex with an intravenous-drug user at a time when HIV was still widely understood as exclusively a “gay thing”. Survival instincts kick in when the denial of his diagnosis passes and Woodruff realizes the AZT test-treatments he is receiving are doing him and others more harm than good and the pending FDA approval of other drugs proven to work on the international market is standing in the way of a comprehensive treatment for him and other HIV-positive Americans. Fed up with Big Pharma, Woodruff takes to some international drug-running and begins providing alternative treatment services to anyone with the cash to pay for it.
Jim Miller: Strapping young Denzel Washington as a lawyer who, while readily admitting to hating homosexuals, takes on Andrew Beckett’s case in the name of the law. THE LAW. While he does a snappy job in court of cleverly defending his client and extracting the hard evidence of people’s prejudices and instances of discrimination, one remains unconvinced that outside the courtroom his opinions have changed in the slightest. He brings cheese to Tom Hanks on his deathbed after winning the multi-million dollar lawsuit, so… that’s nice?
Angels in America: Hannah Pitt / Ethel Rosenberg / The Rabbi / The Angel Australia: All Meryl Streep. Meryl-fucking-Streep. Realizing the croaking, bearded and hunched rabbinical pronouncements of the opening scene were indeed delivered by Ms. Streep brings such joy.
Dallas Buyer’s Club: Rayon (Jared Leto) the loving, transgendered, HIV-positive yin to Woodruff’s yang, with an obsession with Marc Bolan and an ongoing struggle with a Heroin addiction. Woodruff and Rayon begin as partners and end up best friends. While this is something we all immediately expect will happen, it is touching nonetheless. Leto seriously brings it on this one, and Rayon sports some truly inspiring late 80’s rock n’ roll outfits. This internet critic is now seriously considering a perm. Could have been played by Meryl Streep.
Philadelphia: Law, Lawyering. Justice. Courtroom dramas are pretty much always pretty entertaining in pretty much the same way.
Angels In America: Religion? Love? Life? Faith? Disappointment? Death? Theatre stuff. Talk to Meryl Streep.
Dallas Buyer’s Club: This is where Dallas buyer’s Club really brings it. Perhaps it is just that Big Pharma and the money and politics and hypocrisy surrounding fair and ethical and successful and humane medical treatment is a timely topic, but it’s Woodruff’s fight to survive despite the FDA’s concerted efforts to stifle him and any treatments “unapproved” despite an exponentially increasing population of HIV-positive Americans is what makes this film great and sets it just above the other films.
The other films, while “based” on “true” “stories”, fail to rise above personal narratives to tell an important part of the history of HIV/AIDS. Despite the personal and legal discrimination dealt with in Angels in America and Philadelphia, we all expect that when you walk into the doctor’s office you will be treated in an egalitarian manner and be provided with the best treatments available. Dallas Buyer’s Club explores what happens when that is not the case, and corporations and private interest are placed before the fight for an individual’s well-being.
Angels in America won Emmys for best Motion picture for television, best actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress. Philadelphia won for best actor (Tom Hanks), and Tom Hanks’ charatcer is number 49 on AFI’s list of 100 Top Heroes and Villains (presumably as a hero).
Will McConaughey win an Oscar? Probably not. Maybe a nomination is deserved though, honestly. Really. I mean that.
Laura Clark is a film reviewer for the Spectator Tribune, and will watch anything.