Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: How to Survive a Plague

This amazingly well-done, admirably dry-eyed documentary about a true human victory over what was once a universal death sentence might well be the year’s finest.

Sept 21, 2012

-By David Noh


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1363468-How_Plague_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

No less than a truly epic account of the war against AIDS waged by a small band of New York activists which eventually burgeoned into the ground-shifting force that was ACT UP, Charles France’s superb, powerful debut documentary will stand the test of time as the definitive account of an era that was both horrifying and inspiring.

Addressing the history of the disease and the devastating toll it initially took in the gay community, the frustrating apathy of government and medical authorities, which could easily be deemed homophobic, and the heroically unstinting efforts of committed activists to combat these challenges, France skillfully weaves and maintains control of the myriad, disparate threads of this dark tapestry in a way that can only be described as masterly. Anything but a dry or depressing account of those plague years, which have sadly receded into memory by a later, feckless generation, How to Survive a Plague has the dramatic excitement of a superior movie thriller, with the added plus that, ever informed by a probing intelligence and clear-sightedness, here are true heroes and villains (two Presidents, Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, et. al) battling it out in an actual life-and-death struggle.

Among the heroes must be counted Peter Staley and Bob Rafsky. The former was a Wall Street trader, himself infected with HIV, who was an early member of ACT UP and became one of its most profound spokespeople, fighting for increased medical research and delivering a stirring address at the 1990 International AIDS Conference in San Francisco. Rafsky was the guy who really brought AIDS into the political arena when he heckled Bill Clinton during his 1992 campaign. France includes footage of all these seminal moments, as well as a blistering eulogy delivered by Rafsky at the funeral of a friend, whose death he lays at the feet of the first President Bush.

France skillfully delineates the necessary scientific aspects of his tale in dealing with the disease, here even making cellular biology understandable to the layman, and yet he never loses sight of the human factor, although quite wonderfully eschewing any sentiment. What is really moving is how many of those pioneering activists, like Staley, remain alive and vital today, even as others, like Rafsky, have sadly gone.

France blessedly does not try to paint these activists and ACT UP in saintly hues and we are witness to the often volcanic infighting that went on between differing factions, all of which makes the eventual, undeniable triumph of their efforts for increased research and access to necessary drugs all the more hard-won and precious. Those efforts, of course, included infamous demonstrations like the ones at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the New York Stock Exchange and, most exhilaratingly, the FDA, and one can only hope that those Occupy protesters, wherever they may be, will avail themselves of this film and the brilliantly effective, anarchic techniques revealed in it.


Film Review: How to Survive a Plague

This amazingly well-done, admirably dry-eyed documentary about a true human victory over what was once a universal death sentence might well be the year’s finest.

Sept 21, 2012

-By David Noh


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1363468-How_Plague_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

No less than a truly epic account of the war against AIDS waged by a small band of New York activists which eventually burgeoned into the ground-shifting force that was ACT UP, Charles France’s superb, powerful debut documentary will stand the test of time as the definitive account of an era that was both horrifying and inspiring.

Addressing the history of the disease and the devastating toll it initially took in the gay community, the frustrating apathy of government and medical authorities, which could easily be deemed homophobic, and the heroically unstinting efforts of committed activists to combat these challenges, France skillfully weaves and maintains control of the myriad, disparate threads of this dark tapestry in a way that can only be described as masterly. Anything but a dry or depressing account of those plague years, which have sadly receded into memory by a later, feckless generation, How to Survive a Plague has the dramatic excitement of a superior movie thriller, with the added plus that, ever informed by a probing intelligence and clear-sightedness, here are true heroes and villains (two Presidents, Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, et. al) battling it out in an actual life-and-death struggle.

Among the heroes must be counted Peter Staley and Bob Rafsky. The former was a Wall Street trader, himself infected with HIV, who was an early member of ACT UP and became one of its most profound spokespeople, fighting for increased medical research and delivering a stirring address at the 1990 International AIDS Conference in San Francisco. Rafsky was the guy who really brought AIDS into the political arena when he heckled Bill Clinton during his 1992 campaign. France includes footage of all these seminal moments, as well as a blistering eulogy delivered by Rafsky at the funeral of a friend, whose death he lays at the feet of the first President Bush.

France skillfully delineates the necessary scientific aspects of his tale in dealing with the disease, here even making cellular biology understandable to the layman, and yet he never loses sight of the human factor, although quite wonderfully eschewing any sentiment. What is really moving is how many of those pioneering activists, like Staley, remain alive and vital today, even as others, like Rafsky, have sadly gone.

France blessedly does not try to paint these activists and ACT UP in saintly hues and we are witness to the often volcanic infighting that went on between differing factions, all of which makes the eventual, undeniable triumph of their efforts for increased research and access to necessary drugs all the more hard-won and precious. Those efforts, of course, included infamous demonstrations like the ones at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the New York Stock Exchange and, most exhilaratingly, the FDA, and one can only hope that those Occupy protesters, wherever they may be, will avail themselves of this film and the brilliantly effective, anarchic techniques revealed in it.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Happy Christmas
Film Review: Happy Christmas

Joe Swanberg's latest feature is a collection of strong individual scenes and performances that never quite finds its statement of purpose. More »

Very Good Girls
Film Review: Very Good Girls

More of a meandering, misguided path than a road to hell, Naomi Foner’s directing debut, starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen as 18-year-old BFFs, is similarly filled with good intentions. More »

The Kill Team
Film Review: The Kill Team

Marine Adam Winfield goes on trial in a case in which U.S. soldiers murdered innocent Afghanis. Strong subject marred by poor narrative choices. More »

Beneath
Film Review: Beneath

Claustrophobics beware: For the bulk of this tightly constructed thriller, the characters are trapped 600 feet underground in a dark, aging coal mine, backed into one tight space after another as they try to elude someone or something with murderous intentions. You have been warned. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Lucy
Film Review: Lucy

Drugs unleash the full potential of the brain with tragic results in Luc Besson's sci-fi adventure. More »

Magic in the Moonlight
Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Slight Woody Allen period romance is enlivened by appealing leads Colin Firth and Emma Stone. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here