A loud, pointed, but missing-the-point discussion is taking place in a packed New York meeting room in the 1990s. Then playwright Larry Kramer screams “Plaaague, Plaaague.” The room goes silent, listening as the gay activist frames the challenges faced at the worst point of the AIDS epidemic.
That is the most dramatic, riveting moment in “How to Survive a Plague,” director David France’s powerful, ultimately uplifting documentary that tells the story of AIDS and of ACT UP, the grassroots movement that pushed the government, its health agencies and drug companies to attack the disease and, in the end, find a treatment that now is saving lives.
Utilizing vintage footage from television broadcasts and home movies with some recent interviews to tie things together, “How to Survive a Plague” opens with still devastating pictures of withered men suffering from the disease from which they are certain to die, then shifts to the first meeting of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) a leaderless group formed in 1987 through Kramer’s inspiration.
At that meeting, the aspiring activists are organizing a demonstration/confrontation with New York Mayor Ed Koch. It was the first of many such actions that found ACT UP shutting down the Food and Drug Administration, protesting at the National Institutes of Health and battling the Catholic church.
While those confrontations were taking place, ACT UP, and a splinter group called TAG, were studying AIDS, drugs that might be used for it and possible treatment regimes. That effort was led, in part, by a housewife who had nothing to do with gay activism before AIDS and returned to her life after the mix of drugs now used to control the disease was discovered.
Scientists explain how those drugs work and admit luck in finding the combination. But getting there wasn’t easy, and the confrontations between the activists and health officials are painful to watch knowing that thousands were dying as the government drug its feet.
That, the film correctly implies, was because AIDS was the “gay plague” and prominent political figures, like the repugnant Sen. Jesse Helms basically argued that homosexuals deserved it because of their behavior.
Even candidate Bill Clinton had to be pushed on the issue, most notably in a nasty 1992 verbal confrontation with activist Bob Rafsky, who died before treatment was found.
But Rafsky and the rest of the men in the film had no reason to back down to Clinton, the George H.W. Bush administration or the drug companies. They literally were fighting for their lives. And it is in the small moments of France’s perfectly structured films that the desperation and determination of the activists is powerfully conveyed.
Thirty years ago, the AIDS crisis was just beginning, and it became the focus of activism and the cultural fight over gay rights. It is heartening to see that struggle now is about gay marriage, not survival of thousands, if not millions.
That is a measure of the success of ACT UP, and it’s why “How to Survive a Plague” is so important, lest we forget.