David France’s “How to Survive a Plague” is one of the most powerful, fascinating and saddest documentaries of the last several years. It tells an extremely important story about a too-quickly forgotten time. And it’s the rare documentary that finds political outrage in legitimate issues of life and death, without grandstanding.
The film, covering a time period beginning in the late 1980s and continuing through 1996, weaves together both news accounts and amazing home video footage to depict the height of the AIDS epidemic. It’s got a compelling narrative and never feels for a second like a lecture or history lesson.
Focusing mostly on the activist group ACT UP and its later offshoot, TAG, “How to Survive a Plague” tells the story of how the gay community and sympathetic friends fought for help from both the government and drug companies, as the deaths mounted from the awful disease. The 1993 HBO film “…And the Band Played On,” based on the memoir by journalist Randy Shilts, covered some of this ground, but France’s film goes way deeper.
We’re introduced to historically important activists, like Larry Kramer, Mark Harrington and Bob Rafsky, who emerge as fully formed characters. Another is Garance Franke-Ruta, the respected political writer for the Atlantic who I had no idea was involved with ACT UP as a teenager.
France, a longtime journalist, shows quite a bit of storytelling acumen, bringing us into the organization and even showing us its internal feuds. The instance in which Kramer, the noted playwright and activist, interrupts a shouting match by yelling out the word “PLAGUE!”, may be the most powerful moment of any film this year.
Also in the film is a great deal of footage from politicians, including the famous moment in which Rafsky interrupted a press conference by Bill Clinton, who replied with “I feel your pain.” We see the monstrous bigot Jesse Helms, delivering a vicious, gay-baiting speech on the floor of the Senate, which is almost redeemed by a shot of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone staring daggers at him. And we’re reminded that George H.W. Bush, who after he passes will likely be fondly remembered as a respectable moderate, really said, in a 1992 presidential debate at the height of the crisis, that people worried about AIDS should just “change their behavior.”
The story gets bleaker and bleaker until, following years of pressure from the activists, a breakthrough was reached with the introduction of protease inhibitors in 1996. France then gives us a montage of several of the film’s activists today, having miraculously survived despite looking as though they were near death in the old footage. However, the film never loses sight of the many who died, keeping track of the total throughout.
The film, shown at film festivals throughout 2012, released briefly in theaters in September and now available on Netflix streaming. For those interested in this issue or time period it is highly recommended.