2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Do a quick Google search for “AIDS documentary films” and you’ll be directed to a Wikipedia page dedicated solely to this sub-genre with more than 50 titles listed (including “5B”). Usually, only wars result in so many documentary movies. But when you think about it, fighting and defeating AIDS was and still remains a war — and any film that can raise awareness on the subject is a worthy investment of capital and time.
Co-directed by Dan Krauss and multiple Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby,” the criminally overrated “Crash”), “5B” (named after the wing of a San Francisco hospital ward where it is largely set) gets barely more right than it does wrong. It becomes essential viewing for the genre mostly because it chronicles the beginnings of the health care treatment of AIDS patients in the U.S.; not so much from a medical perspective but rather the approach taken by doctors and nurses on a humanitarian level.
In the wake of “free love” in the 1960s came the growing-in-profile same sex love of the 1970s, and at the center of it all was San Francisco. With the Castro district acting as the national ground zero, the gay/lesbian movement took flight and began weaving itself into the fabric of the American lifestyle. No one fooled themselves into thinking it would be easy or quick. And any hopes of short-term success ended in 1981 with the arrival of a mystery disease — first diagnosed as the “gay cancer” — which provided Middle America and the far right all the political ammunition they needed to fight and/or deny it for at least another half-decade.
What became clear early on was that this disease was 100% fatal. There was no indication of any cure on the near horizon or the funding for the research to find one. As the numbers of patients at the hospital where they worked began to swell, the 5B staff came to the stark realization that what was ahead of them wasn’t fixhealing the men in their care but rather making their final days more bearable. It was less a hospital and more of a hospice, and they had no road map or compass with which to navigate.
For the first half of the film’s 94-minute running time, Krauss and Haggis hit every note, if not perfectly, at least with superb storytelling acumen and timing. The pace is ideal, the roughly dozen major individuals with speaking parts are introduced and fleshed out and the unique nature of the narrative is firmly established. The threads of secondary individuals and story lines are brought in with care and the momentum is undeniable.
The narrative peaks at about the halfway point with a segment featuring Rita Rocket, a Castro resident and part-time entertainer who spent every Sunday for 18 years providing brunch and impromptu floor shows — often in skimpy lingerie — for the patients. When a photo of a pregnant Rocket barely embracing a patient became public, she began receiving death threats.
Although this is not where it starts, it is the point in the movie where the directors ratchet up the political bias where none is really needed. Very few people would disagree that the initial knee-jerk reaction exhibited by the majority of America (and much of the rest of world) was a natural, if not understandable response and as with any life and death issue where morality (warranted or not) creeps into the equation, extreme fear can be overwhelming and with it an often intractable defensive mindset.
Homophobia and bias of every sort soon took over, and many people in power made some really bad decisions and/or waited too long to not only acknowledge the existence of AIDS but to earmark the proper funds for research. Health care professionals who didn’t follow in lockstep with some of the iffy, unorthodox, untested and potentially fatal medical practices of the 5B staff were unfairly vilified.
For Haggis (“In the Valley of Elah,” “The Next Three Days”) — as blunt and ham-fisted a director the industry has ever known — this is nothing new but he generally does his preaching within the context of fictional live action. For Krauss — whose documentary and subsequent live-action adaptation of “The Kill Team” were throttling and politically neutral – it’s somewhat disappointing, even more so considering his brilliant “Extremis” was another medical documentary dealing with similar moral, ethical and end-of-life quandaries.
If there were such a thing as a Hippocratic oath for documentary filmmakers, it should be “first show no bias or pass judgment” on your subject. The sad truth is that most documentaries do reflect bias and often taint the message with the inclusion of unneeded embellishments.
There is more than enough raw material in this film to make it a heartbreaking examination of the past and inspirational tome for the future, but by getting sidetracked with vindictive bile, it often cheapens its value and searing impact.
It’s not the honorable message that misses the mark in “5B,” it’s the messengers.