How to Survive a Plague teems with poignant facts and stats, but the most telling detail about this from-the-front-lines AIDS-crisis doc is that camcorders just happened to hit the market right when the disease began to spread. With video equipment available to all, 1982 marked the dawn of insta-media, and with members of the activist group ACT UP able to film their every move, their revolution wouldn’t just be televised, it would be fully documented too. Such is why journalist turned filmmaker David France’s epic account of this pitch-dark time is so amazingly thorough, composed of a plethora of priceless footage from the very heart of the issue. Beyond offering an aesthetic that is the ‘80s and early ‘90s, his stunning film contains scene after scene that would oft-require recreation in narrative form, showing stalwart heroes caught up in drama no script could conceivably beat. It’s a highly subjective movie, but it isn’t a stretch to consider it the quintessential snapshot of a moment and a movement. And though there’s a certain inevitable artlessness given that the film is more compilation than creation, there’s nearly no segment one could imagine being left on the cutting-room floor.
Whereas most films about causes depict individuals who can, in the end, go home and thrive while lamenting whatever goals they didn’t reach, How to Survive a Plague presents a cast of characters who must continue fighting, for what’s at stake is the very real, very imminent threat of their own deaths. Living in a society too bigoted, scared, or indifferent to take the proper steps to quell an epidemic, members of the Greenwich Village-based ACT UP are seen as having to become their own scientists, pharmacists, “drug smugglers,” and PR reps. Among them are Mark Harrington, a brilliant Harvard grad who quickly drafts an entire treatment glossary; Bob Rafsky, an ailing PR pro formerly employed by Donald Trump; and Peter Staley, an ex-bond trader who becomes ACT UP’s strongest spokesman (also featured is venerable writer Larry Kramer, the “grandfather of AIDS activism” whose talks sparked the start of the organization). The desperate efforts of these tortured souls shows each in the driver’s seat of his own destiny, and amid heated ACT UP meetings, rallies at New York’s City Hall and the FDA headquarters, and private conversations with the members themselves, it grows painfully clear that not everyone will be alive at film’s end. All of this unfolds with a sweeping dramatic scope, punctuated by talking-head interviews with sympathetic volunteers, and a running counter that keeps track of the devastating numbers (1988: 800,000 dead worldwide; 1990: 1,700,000). Specific moments, like a mass dispersion of loved ones’ ashes on the White House lawn, are inexpressibly moving.
On the broad scale, AIDS has always been underplayed as a cultural crisis and a national scar, and in addition to struggling through one inadequate treatment after another, the ACT UP crew is forced to suffer a string of neglectful politicians, from Ed Koch to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush (“If you want change, change your behavior,” the latter was known to say). Only when Rafsky heckles Clinton on the campaign trail does AIDS become a fully legitimate political talking point, eventually aiding the scientific discovery of a decent drug cocktail in 1996. A well-known AIDS chronicler for The New York Times and Newsweek, France makes the mistake of crassly overselling his own views, throwing in a bumbling, Michael Moore-ish montage of George H.W. that, complete with Louis Armstrong’s “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You,” is well beneath an otherwise lofty taste level. But it’s hard to argue with his sentiments when so much rampant injustice has gone so grossly unpunished, and Santorum supporters still horrifyingly regard Reagan as the greatest U.S. president. The language of the film’s subjects peels away the blinders: “Plague.” “Extinction.” The atrocity of “putting people out to pasture for doing a human thing.” Staley observes that there will come a time when people will look back and hear that there was a terrible disease, and that a whole bunch of people stepped up and fought to counteract it. This film paints the picture.