HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE – The Review
Review by Barbara Snitzer
This movie is an excellent, engrossing, and necessary document to an important period of history.
Living in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was familiar with ACT-UP. At least I thought I was.
ACT-UP is the acronym for the Aids Coalition To Unleash Power, an organization founded by gay activists to pressure the powers that be to help them fight the deadly disease ravaging their community. Their accomplishments have benefited every citizen of the United States, gay and straight, and they deserve our recognition and gratitude.
After watching this movie, I felt old and sad. Old because I remember how frightening AIDS was. I remember learning of the deaths of artists I had just discovered, like the fashion designer Patrick Kelly and disco diva Sylvester. I remember exactly where I was when I heard Freddie Mercury had died. Having dated some “confused” guys, I remember the dread of getting tested. I remember when AIDS meant certain death.
For gays to be fighting for the right to marry today almost seems to be a luxury. The footage opening the movie seems quaint today: people in acid-washed, mommy-cut jeans being arrested as they shout “Health care is a right!” Who did these people think they were?
Director David France: “We didn’t know from week to week who was going to make it. That was a literal fact. There’s no hyperbole there. It’s one thing to try and tell somebody that, but what this archive of footage allowed me to do was to show it and allow the audience to wonder from frame to frame who would live and who would die.”
They challenged the FDA and changed the drug approval procedure. They challenged pharmaceutical companies and got them to lower their prices as well as speed up their research process. They created a blueprint for how to make a difference in the world.
It’s important to remember that they accomplished all of this without the internet, social media, or cell phones. They accomplished this with Republican presidents. They accomplished this despite the societal acceptance prejudice against homosexuals.
The people profiled who became the core members of ACT UP had nothing in common save the fear of death. Of particular note:
Larry Kramer might be the only one with any name recognition. His 1987 New York Times op-ed piece is credited for the founding of ACT UP. His appearances and interviews in the movie are the most eloquent, as one would expect from a playwright.
Peter Staley was a bond trader who tested positive for HIV two years after moving to New York. He was given a flyer for an ACT UP protest but had not planned to attend until his boss said “Everyone with AIDS deserves to die because they take it up the butt.” His knowledge of corporate culture informed ACT UP’s successful demonstrations against pharmaceutical companies and federal bureaucracies.
Iris Long was a straight housewife from Queens who felt compelled to share what she’d learned from her twenty years of working in drug development. She taught ACT UP the protocols of every aspect of drug creation allowing them to take on the establishment with authority. Ultimately, her contributions were more valuable than any other member.
Bob Rafsky was a PR director who came out at age 40. The movie includes a gripping scene of him confronting candidate Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign.
The movie’s director, David France, insists he’s not a movie director. That is very humble of him; much of the footage in this film was shot by people who succumbed to the plague (they are given screen credit). France is a journalist whose career has been spent covering the disease. Realizing that the disease was discovered at the same time camcorders hit the market gave him the idea to make this movie. The story of ACT UP emerged from the over 700 hours of footage he found.
Along with last year’s documentary We Were Here, the time has come for the story of AIDS to be told, lest it be forgotten. Many of those on the front lines have had the trauma affect their memories. As was observed in Holocaust survivors, beyond a specific date, no one could remember what happened.
That date was 1996 when the Protease Inhibitor Crixivan was approved. By December of that year, AIDS deaths in New York City had gone down by 50%. Had Presidents Reagan and Bush committed more funding to AIDS, that drug would have appeared sooner and many lives could have been saved. Bush’s own AIDS commission criticized his lack of commitment in June, 1992.
France said that year ” …AIDS became a non-story. Newspapers stopped writing about it. It was over.”
Today, HIV is a manageable condition rather than a death sentence.
Despite its subject matter, this is not a propogand-doc. France doesn’t ignore the infighting that threatened ACT-UP’s existence; in fact Larry Kramer is critical of the movie for not including more of these details. I’m sad he’s not happy with the movie. The movie includes footage of him angrily berating those infighters. “Plague!!!” he exclaims in exasperation. ” It is a plague that is not going to go away. It is only going to get worse,” he said in 2011.
His choice to interview the pharmaceutical scientists is an inspired one. It is a reminder that drug companies are not the enemy. ACT UP proved that the real route to change is to work within the existing systems, not to destroy them.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE opens in St. Louis today at Landmark’s Tivoli Theater
Read more of Barbara’s reviews at her blog Le Movie Snob HERE