Monday, February 4, 2013

How to Survive a Plague Movie Review

Documentary films are first and foremost supposed to do just that – document a story, an event, a person, etc. It tends to be the case that most documentaries are contemporary and many are a call to action for some pressing issue that the filmmakers feel strongly about. The recent Oscar winners An Inconvenient Truth, which deals with global warming, and The Cove, about dolphin fishing in Japan, are two examples. Sometimes they tell a story of events long ago, perhaps bringing to the public’s attention events they otherwise would have known little to nothing about. Those we might refer to as historically educational documentaries. These include just about every Holocaust documentary in existence. Some are just plain good stories and would make for an emotionally moving experience if adapted into a narrative film. Last year’s Oscar winner Undefeated as well as Man on Wire from several years ago come to mind. But while I sat through How to Survive a Plague, one of this year’s Documentary Feature nominees, I kept thinking it felt so strangely anachronistic.


It feels like it falls somewhere uncomfortably between historical document and call to action. By focusing on a grass roots movement begun in Greenwich Village in the late 80s to push harder for a way of during or treating people with HIV, it is historical fact fed by raw home video footage shot back in the day. It’s a story that is, if not quite finished, in a much later and very different chapter. We know now that HIV is no longer the death sentence it was 20 years ago. Treatment drugs keep the virus from replicating and even render it undetectable in the blood. In this sense, the movement was successful even if there remains much work to be done in the field of HIV/AIDS research.

What makes this documentary feel so strange is the almost complete absence of talking head interviews with the key players today. They are saved for the very end when director David France wants the big emotional discovery of who survived and lives with the disease and who doesn’t. The entire story is told from the point of view of archival footage, most of it shot by the activists themselves. It begins years after the AIDS crisis had already erupted and while (mostly) gay men were dropping dead at an alarming rate. Several hundred people decided to do something about it by staging protests and taking their fight to the pharmaceutical companies, and the FDA, all in the hope of speeding up drug research and production.

The story of HIV and AIDS has countless victims and heroes. How to Survive a Plague narrows its focus somewhat to two men who fought long and hard for better treatment. There is Bob Rafsky, a divorced gay man dying from the disease, and Peter Staley, a former Wall Street bonds trader who was diagnosed in 1985 and left his job to become a full time activist. Writer Larry Kramer also figures quite heavily. All three were involved in ACT UP, the organization devoted to education and spurring the government to do more.

France and his co-writers Todd Woody Richman and Tyler H. Walk structure the film very similar to a narrative docudrama. They follow ACT UP from their early days and their first protest on Wall Street through a successful demonstration at the FDA and eventual divide in ranks that led to the formation of TAG, a second activist group. It’s illuminating to realize that the drugs that millions of people use today to stay alive might have taken much longer to be created had it not been for these very vocal individuals chaining themselves to fences and the like. How much sooner could these drugs have been created, how many lives saved, if they had acted sooner? More to the point, I suppose, is to ask what if the government had acted earlier.

And that is a central question in the film. A lot of trash talk is tossed around directed at both President Reagan and later President Bush. There is archival footage of Bill Clinton speaking at an early campaign rally during which Rafsky gave him an insulting heckle from the audience. Clinton devours him with a serious dressing down. Rafsky later admits he learned never to get into a sparring match with a Rhodes Scholar. If I have one quibble with the documentary, it’s the subtle way it implies that the Republican presidents refused to fund AIDS research and even implemented the discriminatory immigration policy of not permitting entrance to HIV positive travelers. They don’t come out directly to say it, but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to get the message that they view the Clinton administration as the savior for putting money into the problem and getting it done in the 90s. My issue with that is one of failing to understand how big government functions. The idea that Reagan, Bush, or Clinton had any real influence on the amount of funding directed at AIDS research strikes me as naïve at best. Yes, they can direct their agencies to do this or that, but ultimately their decisions on matters of this kind of science are based on what their advisors tell them. It seems more than likely that prior to the Clinton administration, the reasonable advice would have gone into studying the disease and not into pharmaceutical research. It was an accident of timing, not of party affiliation that the good drugs came around under Clinton. As for the discriminatory immigration policy – I understand why it was put in place to begin with at a time when no one understood the disease and everyone was scared witless by it. Ultimately President Obama lifted that ban, but George W. Bush started the process.

A little bit of unnecessary politicization notwithstanding, How to Survive a Plague is an inspiring story, but I just felt the whole time like this film should have been made twenty years ago when it might have made a big difference. Put into historical context, it’s useful to know now that the eventual discovery of protease inhibitors as a truly effective treatment method might well have been speeded up by the efforts of these relatively small in number, but large in voice, demonstrators.

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