How to Survive a Plague may have barely missed out on nabbing the Best Documentary Oscar at this year's Academy Awards, but this chronicle of the early years of AIDS activists and their impact on public policy in treating the disease (saving untold lives in the process) is a solid, penetrating watch.
Through a mass of wobbly VHS footage of activist meetings and demonstrations, news footage, archival interviews and the occasional contemporary reflection, How to Survive a Plague ushers viewers through that tumultuous period in neatly organized, strictly chronological fashion. Sure, this unadorned method might seem like something of a cop-out, but the director understood that the footage in itself conveys enough power to basically carry the documentary. It certainly helps the film's "you are there" mojo as we witness these activists evolve from a band of fierce, passionate yet disorganized Manhattanites into a force capable of AIDS policy-shaping on a global scale.
Beginning in 1987, with a graphic that ominously racks up the number of AIDS deaths, How to Survive a Plague opens in a fragmentary manner befitting the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). One gets a healthy sense of the pent-up alienation and anger which led to the organization, which grew out of outrage over the lack of action taken on a city, state and nationwide basis over the looming heath crisis caused by AIDS and HIV. While ACT UP's membership originally consisted of mostly younger white gay men directly affected by the disease, its makeup grew as the disease spread and people became more aware of the group's ballsy protest tactics.
How to Survive a Plague accurately coneys the history unfolding as it recounts the mounting dread of the dark 1988-92 period as AIDS casualties piled up (the disease had a nearly 100% fatality rate). There's also a great sense of community as well, however, when each protest results in the small victory of moving forward. When the traditional big pharma system let them down, the ACT UP members educated themselves on alternative and/or black market medications - the members are even shown being primed on how to be arrested correctly and the correct way to deliver a perfectly timed sound bite to the media. The participants also admit some of their shortcomings (in pressuring the FDA to speed up availability of the faulty drug AZT, for instance), and the internal strife of the group is vividly shown when a splinter activist group, TAG, is founded in the early '90s.
The film is peppered with latter-day comments from those who were active in that scene, from the activist playwright Larry Kramer to unsung people like the nurse who couldn't stand by while hospitals were turning away the sick and dying. A few other notable activists emerge in the archival footage, as well - people like the firebrand PR exec-turned-outspoken activist Bob Rafsky, or the articulate, boyishly handsome Peter Staley (who is seen facing off on a late '80s edition of CNN's Crossfire against Tom Braden and a surprisingly compassionate Pat Buchanan, one of the film's highlights). Director David France deliberately keeps the fate of these subjects uncertain, making the film as much of a "did he survive or not?" game as absorbing history telling.
How to Survive a Plague achieves its goals in a plain-spoken, relatively straightforward manner that is generally free of the motion graphics, re-creations, ironically placed pop music and other gimmickry currently (over-) done in documentary filmmaking. It tells a story that needed to be told, succinctly and with a lot of heart. If the film gets a bit too smug and self-congratulatory towards the end, the participants still come away earning our admiration. The lack of HIV education in today's landscape is still a widespread problem, but at least it's now a manageable condition to those who have it (and can afford the cocktail of drugs used to contain it). We have all the people in this film to thank for that.
How to Survive a Plague relies heavily on vintage '80s-'90s video, but the mastering on this 1.85:1 widescreen presentation is agreeably done with sharp detail and nice levels of dark and light on the contemporary-shot segments. The older footage varies wildly in quality, which strangely enough adds a lot to the film's vibe of history unfolding before your eyes.
The sole audio option on How to Survive a Plague is a pleasantly mixed track with clear dialogue and smoothly integrated vintage audio. The 5.1 Surround mix doesn't use the surrounding channels in a showy way, but it serves its purely informational purpose well. Optional subtitles are available on the DVD as well, in English SDH and Spanish.
A group audio commentary with director David France and several ACT-UP members seen in the film - Heidi Dorow, Joy Episalla, Bob Lederer and Ron Medley - supplies a lot of details that were glossed over or deemed not important to the main feature. The track contains a few dead spots when everyone is absorbed in the film, but for the most part it's an interesting listen. Also included are about 12 minutes' worth of Deleted Scenes and a Theatrical Trailer.
David France's acclaimed documentary How to Survive a Plague recounts the rise of activist group ACT-UP during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in New York City. Heavy on archival clips and told in a refreshingly straightforward manner, the film serves as a dignified pedestal to the men and women who passionately fought for recognition and better treatment for those with AIDS. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.