I recently took in a showing of The Dallas Buyers Club, a movie centering around the attempts of main character Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) to fill the void for those dealing with AIDS in the early 80’s without any hopeful medical treatments available. A real-life character, Woodroof started one of many so-called “buyers clubs” — patient collectives that were structured to make end-runs around FDA policy and DEA regulations and get time-critical therapies to those desperate to try anything rather than risk certain death.
Before getting into the issues I have with this movie, I have to give props where they are due. McConaughey does that unbelievable, effortless-looking thing where an actor makes one forget he’s watching an incredibly famous person “act” at all. He lost a painful amount of weight to portray the character with stunning realness, but he doesn’t rely on the shock value of his skeletal frame to cheat us of an award-worthy performance.
With that out of the way, I have to say that I was very disappointed with a bit if historical inaccuracy in the story. I likely would not have picked up on it had I not recently digested the 700+ pages of Randy Shilts’ definitive account of the early years of the epidemic in And the Band Played On. But I did recently read the book, and I’m glad that I did so that I can remind other moviegoers about some key points incorrect in Dallas Buyers Club.
The film opens with Woodroof running a gambling racket at the local rodeo. We discern the date from the newspaper article beneath the money on the table — July 25th 1985, “Rock Hudson in Paris Hospital with AIDS”. Not too much farther into the film, Woodroof winds up in the hospital himself after collapsing. Later, in a clinic exam room, two doctors inform him that he has “tested positive for HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS”. They give him 30 days to live.
Again, had I not just recently slugged through Shilts’ novel, I wouldn’t have remembered that in 1985, the only test available for HIV was the one approved by the FDA for use by blood banks and the manufacturers of blood products (e.g., clotting factor for hemophiliacs). It wasn’t available to the public, and it wasn’t used for routine hospital blood screens. In fact, it was illegal to give an individual the results of such a test and illegal to test without written consent. The former rule was supposedly meant to prevent homosexuals from using the public blood supply as a screening test (because it was not available anywhere else) — make it illegal to give them the results, and they have no reason to donate blood and continue infecting the blood supply. The latter was supposedly to prevent the test from being used by “big brother” as a de facto test of sexuality, given that initial research indicated that as much as 90% of the gay population was infected. For whatever the true reason, the test was not given to the average collapsed man on the street.
Also problematic for this scene is the issue that back in 1985, Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute was still arguing with Robert Gallo of the University of Maryland that Pasteur’s LAV (lymphadenopathy associated virus) was the cause of AIDS as opposed to Gallo’s HTLV-III (human T-lymphotropic virus type III). Though they were later determined to be the same virus and collectively named “HIV”, this term was not widely used until at least a year after the time set for the movie’s diagnosis scene.
So, in a nutshell, it was highly unlikely that two doctors would have entered Woodroof’s room and informed him that they had performed illegal blood tests on him and found that he tested positive for a virus from the future. I don’t think it happened that way. Am I just overly persnickety when I watch movies? Probably. But as I noted in my blog entry on Shilts’ book, it is difficult to comprehend the horror of living in those times as a member of one of the “at risk” groups (i.e., homosexuals) and scientists not only unable to treat the illness, but also unable to test for it or have definitively discovered the cause. That is straight up the plot of a horror movie, and the gay community lived it. It is important to me for people not to forget this. The community suffered from a collective PTSD-worthy situation — living virtually the life of the walking dead. I wanted the movie to make this more clear.
That brings me to my problem with the character Rayon (played awkwardly by Jared Leto). Rayon is a transgender female who is remarkably unable to provide any noticeable point of view from the GLBT community. Though this is a story based on true events, Rayon is not one of them. Some have wondered if the character was added as a concession to the GLBT community of some sort — throw in a trans woman so that they don’t think they have co-opted the subject matter. I can assure the producers of the film, there is no way that you can ever co-opt AIDS from the GLBT community. Whether we want it or not, AIDS history is intertwined with ours.
FINAL VERDICT: See the movie. It’s a great movie with an incredible performance by McConaughey. Just do me a favor and share some of these facts with your friends on the ride home so that I feel like my persnickety efforts have not been in vain.