Film Review – How to Survive a Plague
While the documentary How to Survive a Plague is certainly not an easy watch (and is, in fact, often harrowing), it’s an important one and well worth your time. It’s composed mostly of archival footage, but interweaves that seamlessly with some of the most riveting talking head interviews this side of Errol Morris.
Among the interviewees are American playwright and activist Larry Kramer, Bob Rafsky (perhaps best known for interrupting then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton during a rally), and founders of TAG (Treatment Action Group), Mark Harrington and Peter Staley. Between TAG and fellow coalition ACT UP, great strides were made to find a permanent pharmaceutical solution to the then-newly-identified AIDS virus. It was no easy feat, and a series of heartbreaking hurdles constantly threatened to barricade their righteous path.
Whether by Pat Buchanan’s public badgering of Staley about his “choice” to be a homosexual or Ed Koch’s outright dismissal of requests to exert leadership and declare a state of emergency, we’re painfully reminded of the wrong-headedness displayed by some of our most respected public figures. The frustration only then continues to mount as we’re given firsthand accounts of the heated meetings that continuously ended in disappointment, as well as the symptoms that quickly ravaged those affected.
Relentless in their pursuit to find a cure, activists spent years upon years searching for a drug or combinations thereof that could potentially and permanently stave off the disease. One such drug, AZT (or azidothymidine), was the first true breakthrough in AIDS therapy. It wasn’t an out-and-out cure, but its ability to slow HIV replication made it understandably in-demand. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, we learn AZT is made to be prohibitively expensive (up to $10,000 a year), causing one sufferer to bluntly note “They’re profiting off of our lives.”
A crudely effective counter is displayed between segments, tallying the ever-increasing number of lives that have been taken by the virus. It serves as a gruesome reminder of how quickly the AIDS epidemic spread and the number of years it plagued ours and other countries around the world. At one point during his debate for re-election, George Bush, Sr., sums up the cloudy view of far too many when asked about AIDS. He sees it as a direct result of deviant behavior and should therefore be rightly brushed off as such. If so-called immoral activity is avoided, well hell, we’ll see you at the Pearly Gates when the time is right, I guess.
A scene outside of the re-election headquarters in which Bush resides is arguably the centerpiece of the film. Bob Rafsky, debilitated but passionate, addresses a crowd of loving supporters via bullhorn, confidently condemning the naivety of the general public while simultaneously mourning the tragic loss of lives. The emotional depths captured in this moment alone will no doubt stick with me for some time to come.
Allow me to stress this again: How to Survive a Plague is something of a challenge. A challenge not just because of the negligence and intolerance abrasively depicted by trusted government officials, but because of the countless lives lost and families torn apart as a result. The final 20 minutes or so are empowering as we’re shown the eventual findings that led to the treatments that can let HIV-positive people live long lives today. But even so, we’re left to ponder how many lives could have been saved if the focus of some were greater, not to mention those unfortunate souls who still can’t afford treatment and suffer to this very day.
I encourage you all to seek this one out and treasure the time you’re blessed with.
Final Grade: A
Also, be sure to check out our interview with writer/director David France.