How to Survive a Plague
How to Survive a Plague is the story of the brave young men and women who successfully reversed the tide of an epidemic, demanded the attention of a fearful nation, and stopped AIDS from becoming a death sentence. This improbable group of activists bucked oppression and infiltrated government agencies and the pharmaceutical industry, helping to identify promising new medication and treatments and move them through trials and into drugstores in record time. In the process, they saved their own lives and ended the darkest days of a veritable plague, while virtually emptying AIDS wards in American hospitals. Theirs is a classic tale of activism that has since inspired movements for change in everything from breast cancer research to Occupy Wall Street.
In March of 1987, the AIDS pandemic was reaching terrifying new heights, with the availability of antiretroviral treatments tied up in a morass of government-mandated testing and hysterically inflated pricing. While giving a fiery speech in New York, playwright Larry Kramer stated the need for a new approach to the problem. A few days later, a movement was born. Boasting a wealth of archival footage, this impassioned documentary follows the genesis of the protest group known as the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (a.k.a. ACT UP), a disparate movement of HIV-positive activists who took to the streets during the height of the epidemic to push for more aggressive drug trials. Facing opposition from both within and without, ACT UP made themselves and their cause known to the public at large, via a variety of nonviolent protests and canny media moves. (Their elaborate pranking of the late Senator Jesse Helms is worthy of a movie of its own.) While there’s no doubting director David France’s commitment and empathy for his subjects, that very closeness does end up working against the film’s accessibility somewhat, as home movies and birthday parties take precedence over detailing the search for a cure. (The few clips shown of the scientific process are fascinating, as are the researchers who took the process as a personal challenge.) Insular as it may occasionally be, however, France’s film remains an invaluable document of a crisis point in history, which reached well beyond the realization of the public at large. The title is not an exaggeration. —Andrew Wright