It might seem that time has passed by CBS' The Littlest Victims (Sunday at 8 p.m., Ch. 5), an emotional account of Dr. James Oleske's pioneering research into AIDS in children of six and seven years ago.
But the movie is still relevant for its sympathetic portrayal of minority AIDS victims and the response of the research community and the Reagan administration in the early months of the AIDS crisis.It may be helped by the fact that it is the first made-for-TV movie to be shot on high-definition video.
Although it will be years before many viewers will own TV sets that capture the crisp, almost three-D picture that high-definition video produces, they might notice a slightly sharper image than usual.
On a high-definition monitor, the picture is dramatically different because HDTV splits the image into twice the number of lines for transmission as the current TV picture.
In a screening room in midtown Manhattan, a group of television critics were joined by Oleske himself to watch "The Littlest Victims" on a big-screen, high-definition TV set. The portly, gray-haired Oleske is portrayed in the movie by a handsome, svelte Tim Matheson.
"After the first 15 minutes, I said to myself, `I look a little bit like this guy,"' Oleske joked after the screening. "My kids couldn't understand how a tall, thin, handsome guy could play a short, fat doctor."
Oleske said he has lost about 40 pounds since the events of 1982-83 portrayed in the movie. A subplot is about his battle with heart disease due to overweight.
But the movie is really about the children who became victims of acquired immune deficiency syndrome before scientists even knew that a virus caused the fatal disease that attacks its victims' immune systems, rendering them helpless against infection.
Oleske, a Newark, N.J.-based pediatric immunologist, was convinced early on that the children he was seeing were suffering from AIDS they had contracted through their mothers, then a revolutionary theory. In 1982, AIDS was still considered a gay men's disease, although it had also begun to turn up in intravenous drug abusers.
The movie confronts the social problems surrounding AIDS and the Reagan administration's slow response to provide research money.
"You mean just because it's hitting gays and junkies, nobody cares?" an outraged Oleske says in the movie. "This is not that kind of country!"
Later, when he learns that his application for a grant from the National Institutes of Health has been approved - but not funded - he rants to his laboratory assistant, "The government doesn't give a damn about the people with AIDS! It's written them off already! The sooner they die the better!"
Oleske praised CBS for avoiding unreal characterizations of AIDS victims to make them more "sympathetic," i.e., white. "I congratulate CBS in making a movie that shows what the real story is," that most young victims of AIDS are minority children of poverty-stricken parents.
Oleske said doctors must understand the social pressures on poor, black, inner-city women to have children, often their only source of self-esteem. When such a woman is told she has a 50 percent chance of having a baby with AIDS, Oleske says, what she hears is that she has a 50-50 chance of having a healthy baby. Nevertheless, doctors often respond with disgust when they realize a woman has become pregnant despite the risks.
The original title of the movie was "Innocent Victims." It was changed after Oleske complained that it suggested other victims must be guilty of something.
"It's not that way," he said. "They didn't know. They're all innocent victims."
Oleske said he was "somewhat embarrassed" by the central role of his character in the movie and said attention was due instead to the dedicated nurses who care for AIDS children. It is still a struggle to find the money to pay the nurses and keep the research going, he said. He donated all the money he made on the movie to a children's hospital.
"The only reason I did this - and my wife would say sold my soul - was I needed a social worker desperately, and the money for this movie would pay for a social worker," he said.