How To Survive a Plague (Sundance Selects, NR)

plague sqConsidering the totality of the movie, it seems a strong argument for a more compassionate American public.

plague 500 

There’s a pretty obvious reason why movies like 2016 Obama’s America and Atlas Shrugged: Part II open around this time of year, and I’m sure I don’t have to explain it to you. And while it might not be as pointed (nor even comparably as propagandistic), the new David France documentary How To Survive a Plague is similarly intuitively programmed in the midst of election season, presumably to illustrate what happens when our elected leaders fail to represent the better interests of the nation’s people. But in the end, the film does a lot more than just that.

How to Survive a Plague covers the years 1987 through 1995—i.e., the height of the AIDS epidemic. Sure, AIDS was on many Americans’ radars prior to 1987 and it’s not like it’s gone away today, but it seems safe to say that that nine-year period was the worst of it. As How To Survive a Plague progresses, we get title cards with statistics regarding the total number of AIDS fatalities up to that point—in 1987 it’s 500,000, and by 1995 it is 8.2 million. But really, this is a film about the ACT UP movement, and later the TAG movement, and how they eventually got scientists, doctors, and politicians alike to recognize their plight and, you know, do something about it.

The story is broad enough that we aren’t given just one character we’re supposed to align with, or just one bad guy we should hate. This is a revolving-door scenario, where the good guys make big mistakes sometimes, and other times people who seem to be the bad guys go a long way toward making things better. Even so, it’s hard to not come out of the film with a strong respect for people like Iris Long, a scientist long working in drug development who stepped in and helped out with ACT UP’s ability to get through the maze of understanding how drugs are made and tested, and how to speed up the process, despite the fact that she was (a) straight, (b) had purportedly never even met anyone who was gay, and (c) didn’t know anyone with AIDS.

Elsewhere, we have people like Peter Staley, who was closeted prior to finding out he was infected, and who not long after found himself as something as a spokesperson for ACT UP, including appearing on shows like Crossfire (and making its hosts look like idiots in the process—though, historically, they don’t need much help at that). On the other side, ACT UP takes on not only the FDA and Jesse Helms, but the Catholic Church, and then, eventually, each against the other.

Considering the totality of the movie, though, it seems a strong argument for a more compassionate American public. AIDS never had to become the epidemic it eventually became, if only we didn’t always get so mired in hate and needless legislative procedure. Also, while the film doesn’t hold your hand on the point, it is made pretty clear that the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations did their best to ignore the problem, and it took someone like Clinton to step in and get it taken care of. (This is, of course, open to interpretation: Clinton’s one big appearance in the film, in stock footage from the 1992 campaign trail, falls neatly into a gray area of just how much he cares about those who are infected.)

But the bottom line is that it’s hard not to read this as a purposely positioned political film, what with the fact that inside of the first few minutes we find protesters chanting “Health care is a right,” over and over. When was that footage shot again? | Pete Timmermann

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