Title: HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE
Director: David France
Screenwriter: David France, T. Woody Richman, Tyler H. Walk
Cast: Peter Staley, Garance Franke-Riuta, Mark Harrington, Spencer Cox, Larry Kramer, Bill Bahlman, David Barr, Gregg Bordowitz, Gregg Gonsalves, Derek Link, Iris Long
Screened at: Broadway, NYC, 8/13/12
Opens: September 21, 2012
How effective are demonstrations? If their major aim is to allow protesters to let off steam, they are undoubtedly potent. If their aim is to achieve the demands of the protesters, that’s a mixed bag. The Vietnam demonstrations aimed to end the war quickly. They did not. At best, they may have succeeded in forcing President Johnson to leave office after his first full term. The recent Occupy Wall Street action? If their aim was to let off steam, the demonstrations worked. They did not achieve much partly because their aims were varied, unclear, and largely undoable.
In “How to Survive a Plague,” David France’s remarkably documentary which eschews the bane of documentaries—heads talking to the camera or to interviewers—works wonderfully, the best non-fiction in the theaters this year so far. There is considerable recent history, shown by a collection of archival material dating back to the mid-1980s and doubtless edited down to a suspenseful, even riveting one hundred ten minutes of action. At its center, “How to Survive a Plague,” whose demonstrators were overwhelmingly gay white males who are members of ACT UP, is about young people who had a specific objective, one whose effectiveness could be measured graphically.
From the time the AIDS epidemic began in 1981, a plague which inevitably led to the death of all who had come down with it, both the U.S. government and the drug companies appeared indifferent. Not all people in authority were as hostile as reactionary Senator Jesse Helms, who all but said that the people who acquired the disease deserved to have it or even to die (the they-brought-it-upon-themselves theory). Not all came out with such idiocies as Cardinal O’Connor’s statement that “prophylactics are immoral.” Most in power were probably like then Mayor Edward Koch, a noted liberal when he was a member of the House, who as New York’s chief executive turned relatively indifferent to the pleas of ACT UP.
What did the activists want? They demanded a speeded-up process of both researching drugs that would enable the AIDS-afflicted to live a long life even if not actually cured. They wanted the National Institute of Health to contribute more strongly to research on the drugs, the drug companies to lower the prices of drugs when they could be found so that nobody would die simply because they could not afford them, and they pressured the Federal Drug Administration to fast-track approvals of drugs that even remotely gave hints of their efficacy. They took to the streets, they picketed in front of the White House, they put a giant condom over the home of Jesse Helms, they spread their message from New York across the country so that folks in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco and places between would take up the cause. Letter writing may be fine, but does not get anyone anywhere. Street demonstrations and loud pleas to people in power, that’s another story.
As important as the demonstrations were, ACT UP people, for the most part highly educated, studied virology and pharmacology themselves, putting together pamphlets to press the drug companies to step up their research, to get the medications quickly from animal studies to human beings, even knowing that animal studies are not an accurate indicator of how drugs would affect people.
The footage captures the passion of ACT UP members whether debating among themselves in coffeehouses and other meeting locations, assembling en masse on the streets, even gaining observer status on the usually secret meetings of the FDA. To our benefit in the movie audience, director France’s footage is visually compelling, a superb example of living history that allows us in our seats to see the background of the relatively swift turnaround in attitudes. People with AIDS today are alive ten, twenty, more years than they could have wildly imagined as a result of the young leadership on display in this tight narrative, assembled with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Unrated. 110 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-