Combating institutional indifference, sluggishness and outright hostility, AIDS activists from the late ’80s onward forced attention to be paid, eventually drastically reducing U.S. fatalities in what had been a virtual death-sentence epidemic. That story has been told before in documentaries dating back to the original period, but hindsight allows David France’s stirring “How to Survive a Plague” a concise overview’s clarity and an epic narrative shape, with a happy ending to boot. IFC/Sundance Selects pickup still has an inherently depressing subject to overcome in commercial terms, but critical support should buoy its theatrical profile. Ancillary life will be long.
Focus here is almost exclusively on Act-Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which emerged in New York’s battle-scarred 1987 gay community as an activist force no longer willing to beg politely for treatment options and patient rights. As the death toll rose astronomically, second-term President Reagan hadn’t even spoken the disease’s name until that same year; no national prevention/care policy was in place, and no medications existed to fight the virus itself. Fear and moral condemnation dominated many spheres, from hospitals and funeral homes initially skittish about taking victims to homophobe par excellence Sen. Jesse Helms’ “They asked for it” stance.
With no cure remotely in sight, Act-Up’s angry HIV-positive gay men and supporters realized they had to become their own best advocates, shedding public light on the cause by any means necessary. Graphics and marketing professionals sharpened posters and slogans; figures like unsympathetic New York Mayor Koch and condom-use-opposed Cardinal O’Connor were held up to harsh ridicule; arrest was risked, even insisted upon during high-profile protests.
Some Act-Up members dove into the highly technical fields of medical and scientific research, appalled by the variously disorganized, slow and nonexistent progress among governmental and private health bodies. This struggle dominates “How to Survive a Plague,” which follows the organization as a whole and several key members in their vigorous, eventually successful efforts to change the policies of pharmaceutical companies and medical/scientific bodies. They did this first by applying public pressure, then by gaining unprecedented seats at the corporate/academic tables, achieving a rare and ongoing dialogue between patient advocates and treatment designers. By 1996, new drugs had begun slowing the death toll, albeit too late for millions of Americans already deceased.
This saga is told primarily through archival videotape (Act-Up was nothing if not media-savvy) often narrated by participants. These include a number of important researchers, but the character emphasis is on the activists, a vivid assortment whose survival the pic cannily holds in suspense.
A veteran journalist who’s been reporting on AIDS since the epidemic’s earliest days, debuting helmer France and his first-rate collaborators have assembled a package as engrossing in human terms as it is historically informative. Artful editing, original scoring and music supervision make especially valuable contributions.