“We were afraid of them — everybody was.” Those are the words of David Denmark, a former nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, speaking about AIDS patients in the largely moving documentary “5B.” Denmark, who worked in the hospital’s ward 5B — launched in 1983 as the first facility in the nation designed specifically to treat people with the mysterious, fast-moving disease — admits that he and his fellow staffers were initially reluctant to deal with the patients in their care, but that they overcame this. This film tells their story.
The hospital workers of ward 5B grew to feel compassion for their charges at a time when the rest of society shunned them. For the most part, directors Paul Haggis (“Crash”) and Dan Krauss (“The Kill Team”) have made an effective tear-jerker. But by repeatedly withholding information to manufacture suspense, the filmmakers sometimes lose sight of what the film is really about: human frailty.
“Medically, this [was] a horror show,” Denmark says, referring to the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s. And that’s exactly how the directors frame the documentary, opening with former ward nurse Cliff Morrison walking through darkened corridors of the now-abandoned hospital. Ominous music plays, as if the setting were the site of a massacre.
In a way, it was.
How did we get there? The film flashes back to the mid-1970s, when San Francisco’s growing gay community — newly liberated in the post-Stonewall era — made it possible for men to walk down the street together holding hands. As one 5B survivor recalls, such public expressions of affection were a big deal. When the plague, as some referred to AIDS, first struck, it hurt that some professionals — caregivers, police, etc. — refused to touch people most in need of it.
The film reminds us that, in the early days of AIDS, doctors didn’t know whether the virus was airborne. Some media reports stoked public fears that an infected person could pass on a death sentence, just by breathing. The workers in 5B, unable to heal their patients, shifted their focus from cure to care, holding hands with and embracing people whose families, in many cases, had rejected them.
5B was at the forefront of those changing attitudes. Hank Plante, a Washington Post reporter in the early 1970s — and one of the first openly gay journalists — covered the AIDS epidemic for San Francisco’s CBS affiliate, KPIX. Recalling how hospital staffers made sure that news cameras captured them holding hands with AIDS patients, Plante observes that “those nurses were subversive.”
If such tactics are a benign form of media manipulation, the filmmakers, on the other hand, too often gin up the tension in less forgivable ways. Lorraine Day, for instance, an orthopedic surgeon who antagonized the staff of 5B with her controversial views about AIDS transmission, comes off as an almost cartoonish villain. When, in an interview, she denies that nurses who tended to AIDS patients were heroes, many viewers will be tempted to hiss at the screen.
Other techniques are just as manipulative: The fate of one of the nurses on the ward, who contracted HIV after accidentally sticking herself with a needle, is deliberately withheld. (The assumption is that she didn’t make it, but the filmmakers are playing a little shell game with viewers.) “5B” is ultimately about survival, and the struggle at its center is undeniably a heartbreaking one. Too often, however, the filmmakers get in the way of their own story.
PG-13. At AMC’s Hoffman Center 22. Contains graphic images of surgery and human suffering, and some strong language. 95 minutes.