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.

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.