How to Surive a Plague Inspires

How to Survive a Plague (2012)
Directed by David France.
Public Square Films, 120 minutes, Not-rated.
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When A.I.D.S. first showed up in 1981, diagnosis was a death sentence. That was just fine by conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, and George H. Bush, who were willing to see it as God’s punishment upon immoral homosexuals. And then Rock Hudson died of the disease and Magic Johnson contracted it. So too did heterosexual men and women. When middle school student Ryan White, a hemophiliac, came down with AIDS, even bigots found it expedient to keep their mouths shut. Inexorably, the stigma attached to AIDS began to erode (though they never disappeared totally). Millions perished, but by 1995, an effective drug cocktail treatment plan was in place that dramatically prolonged the lives of HIV positive individuals.

As David France’s Oscar-nominated film shows, don’t applaud science–give the credit to the activists that forced drug companies, public officials, and the National Institutes of Health to research the disease, end the demonization of homosexuals, and speed clinical trial approval. France’s film centers on New York City and the activities of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group). It’s not an easy film to watch and its graphic images of final-stage victims are often sickening. It’s positively heartbreaking to watch the transformation of ACT UP spokesperson Bob Raferty from a robust beefcake to a deathbed stick figure in just three years. Nor is it comforting to contemplate that AIDS still has no cure and that millions still die because they can’t afford the medicine that can save them.

We care deeply about Raferty because filmmaker David France understands the need to personalize the AIDS crisis. Just as Hudson, Johnson, White, Freddie Mercury and a few other high-profile cases awoke the collective conscious of a nation, so too does France take New York’s large gay community and personalize AIDS by focusing on a handful of individual stories. Call it an Olympics profile style if you will, but it’s effective. Segments are linked by flashing each new year while a counter of AIDS-related deaths clicks away in the background. France’s technique puts human faces to otherwise sterile numbers.

How to Survive a Plague tackles a depressing subject, yet it’s ultimately upbeat and inspiring. Among its many virtues is that it demonstrates the power of citizen advocacy  at a time in which cynicism over the efficacy of politics is skyrocketing. Think individuals can’t make a difference? Tell that to activists who recall the day they met Iris Long, a frumpy straight housewife from Queens. She also happened to be a trained chemist and righteously angry that people were dying and nobody was doing anything about it. She appeared at an ACT UP meeting, told the mostly male crowd that they didn’t know what they were talking about, showed them how to put science into their rhetoric, and challenged them to develop their own treatment plan if nobody else would. From her challenge, TAG was born and, by the early 1990s, the NIH, Merck, and others wanted TAG representatives on their boards. 

The film is also an antidote to the no-we-can’t crowd that thinks everyone should fend themselves and that problems won’t be solved by spending money on them. Nonsense! We went from knowing nothing about AIDS in 1981 to AZT trials in three years, and a very effective treatment plan in 14–not quick enough for Bob Raferty, but enough to save the lives of playwright Jim Eigo, writer Larry Kramer, and former broker-turned TAG activist Peter Staley. If you think that these drugs came about through anything less than tens of millions of taxpayer dollars added to the private money, you probably also still think AIDS is the “gay disease.”

For the record, the film is just as hard on the brand of mushy-headed “Yes We Can” liberalism that thinks good intentions and petitions will win the day. ACT UP was often coarse and ill informed, but its “Yes You Damned Well Will!” tactics ultimately triumphed. Watching the film made me wonder what would happen if women with breast cancer stormed the gates of the NIH, or if individuals lacking health care coverage held cough-ins in the halls of Congress. ACT UP is testimony to what desperate people can accomplish if they get organized instead of getting depressed.-- Rob Weir

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