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Due both to overwhelming toll taken by the disease and the number of creative professionals obliterated by it, the HIV/AIDS documentary has become a subgenre unto itself, spanning everything from the early Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt to last year’s We Were Here. For a story that one wishes never had to be told, it has been told exceedingly well, many times over. David France’s current addition to this list, How to Survive a Plague, rises to the top, thanks to a combined appeal to the head and to the heart.
Plague focuses on ACT UP, an organization co-founded by, as the film declares, so-called agitator Larry Kramer in 1987. Many members of the group were, and in some cases are, themselves infected with the virus, which in its early days meant imminent death and mistreatment. They came together out of a shared sense of not just fear but outrage and the social and political discrimination that they felt was preventing medical advances from being made on the disease, and from preventing existing treatments being made affordable to the many who needed it most. For instance, AZT cost $10,000 a year per patient. I none of many eventual major victories, ACT UP got the drug’s pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome, to lower that cost.
One of the few good things to have occurred during the onset of AIDS was the accessibility of the personal video camera, which made plenty of personal footage available to France. It also allows us to meet several of the key leaders in the ACT UP crusade, including Harvard alum Mark Harrington, former Trump PR rep Bob Rafsky, and finance guy Peter Staley, the last of whom became both a calming and galvanizing face of the organization. France presents rallies in New York City (including a kiss-in at St. Vincent’s Hospital) and at the National Institutes of Health, as well as private funerals and interviews with ACT UP volunteers. The film also charts the progress of the disease in terms of lives lost and people infected over the years. And because of the film’s honesty, it remains moving without ever feeling manipulative.
That is mostly due to Plague’s attention to science. The film includes interviews with scientists doing groundbreaking research at companies like Merck, proving that in its own way, campaigning was also done in the lab and through grant requests. And the film’s footage is also mindful of history, noting that politicians like Bill Clinton and Pat Buchanan made AIDS an issue when economics strengthened their campaign platforms. The film also uses 1992 debate footage to show how primitive and backward President George H. W. Bush’s thinking about AIDS and homosexuality really was. (Okay, playing Louis Armstrong's "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You” is a bit below the belt.)
France, an AIDS writer for The New York Times and Newsweek, also clearly explains how in the mid-1990s, protease inhibitors brought about the Lazarus effect. Serious symptoms in AIDS patients rapidly disappeared, and the death toll (a horrible, sobering term to have to have gotten used to) started to decline. Plague avers that seven drug companies manufacture these drug treatments, and claim six million lives have been saved as a result. Some of the most moving testimonials come from survivors who both mourn their lost loved ones and reflect on their guilt of having made it through the dog days.
Still, the final notes sounded by Plague, steeped in melancholy though they may be, are triumphant. A band of brothers united against all odds and made an enormous impact that can never be diminished. The horror of Plague is real, but so is the catharsis.