The Battle of AmfAR: TV Review

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The swiftly paced documentary could have gone deeper with its focus, particularly on Mathilde Krim, but does serve in explaining amfAR's inception and its progress regarding AIDS research.

HBO's documentary shows that the work Elizabeth Taylor and Mathilde Krim started in AIDS research is far from over.

The HBO documentary The Battle of AmfAR gives a swift overview of the creation of the foundation (the American Foundation for AIDS Research) since its inception in 1985, thanks to a partnership between research scientist Dr. Mathilde Krim and Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor. Fame is an important part of amfAR's story, and its very documentation carries through with that idea: directed by Oscar-winner Rob Epstein and Emmy-winner Jeffrey Friedman, Battle is also executive produced by fashion designer Kenneth Cole, who is amfAR's board chairman.

That last point is important, because the documentary is essentially put together as a 40-minute overview of amfAR's inception and work, with a note on how Taylor used her star power -- something she had so long resented -- to enact global change through the foundation. Yet there are only a handful of archival public speeches of a determined Taylor talking about AIDS, as well as a few sound bites (past and present) from the elegant and heavily accented Krim, who are supposed to be the featured focus.

Viewers are told, though, that the two women were so very different, but Krim's husband, Arthur, was a democratic fundraiser and adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, as well as the chairman of a number of studios. The Krims were rich and well connected, just like Taylor, which makes their alliance less surprising than is presented. Very little information is given about Krim's life, though, and even less about Taylor (of course, with Elizabeth Taylor, what more can really be said?), although the bits of personal anecdotes related to amfAR's work are some of the documentary's best. It was moving to hear about Taylor's brother-sister relationship with co-star Rock Hudson that started her activism (after his AIDS diagnosis and death), and then on the flip side, amusing to see how much Krim loved "The Leather Daddy" she met at a Pride parade she participated in.

But such moments are few. Instead, The Battle of AmfAR briefly covers ground about needle exchanges, the case of Ryan White, and the fact that though it was first found in the homosexual community, AIDS is "not a minority disease." But further explorations of any of the subjects will have to be found elsewhere, as the documentary moves at a rapid pace and doesn't dwell on any one thing for long. It is primarily a historical survey, with statistics, about the rise of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, the public's fearful response and the creation of life-sustaining drugs in the mid-1990s. The last part is crucial because of amfAR's direct involvement in that breakthrough research thanks to the grants it awards, and the documentary does a nice job of pausing at least in that moment to explain the science of such an important achievement.

While some scientists and researchers are interviewed (alongside the presentation of helpful animations about how HIV operates), the focus always sways back toward fame. Fundraisers are shown with Bill Gates, Anderson Cooper, and Sharon Stone (who took on Elizabeth Taylor's fundraising role) in attendance, along with a dinner featuring Krim, journalist Regan Hofmann (who is HIV-positive) and Woody Allen, who quips as he walks in the door, "I'm only here for the food."

Ultimately, the documentary's aim seems to be primarily educational -- which it achieves -- about what amfAR is and does, and goes about it in a way the creators clearly hope will lead to action. "Everybody can do something," Krim says in the film's final moments. It was an echo of a comment Taylor had put more frankly earlier: "I was made so aware of this huge, loud silence regarding AIDS. Then I said: 'Bitch! Do something yourself!' " And she did.