Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—How to Survive a Plague (2012) ****

NR, 120 min.
Director: David France
Writers: David France, Todd Woody Richman, Tyler H. Walk
Featuring: Peter Staley, Bob Rafsky, Mark Harrington, Larry Kramer, Jim Eigo, Iris Long, Ray Navarro, Bill Bahlman, David Barr, Gregg Bordowitz

David France’s Oscar-nominated documentary “How To Survive a Plague” brings new understanding for those who weren’t in the trenches about the battle to find a treatment for the AIDS epidemic in the late 80s and 90s. The film profiles major players in Act Up, the AIDS awareness organization that spearheaded the movement to find some sort of functional treatment for HIV, a plague virus that was widely characterized as a homosexual related disease in the United States during that time. What it reveals is a battlefield upon which brave men, who had no hope they would survive this disease and watched helplessly as those around them died, fought a government and public unwilling to address a health problem due to the politicization of the social issues involved.

France has masterfully crafted this documentary to tell their story in a dramatic fashion and provide an amazing amount of facts about the history of the disease, the steps taken toward finding a cure and the hurdles mounted against the people who were threatened most by it. All the while he and his co-writers keep an overwhelming amount of humanity in their story. We get to know these men. We come to care for them. We empathize with their struggle and sympathize with their loss.

The first passages of the film are told almost entirely through archival videotape footage. We see demonstrations. We see the organizers search for a strategy, and realize along with them that they will never get anywhere without becoming involved in the research and development of the cure themselves. We almost become their friends; the whole thing is presented on such an intimate level.

In his craftiest move, France saved most of his recent interview segments for the final third of the film, the section in which an effective treatment is actually discovered. This creates a sense of suspense, as we don’t know which of these men lived to see the day until they are revealed as their 20 years older selves. Most of them seem to harbor a great weight that they didn’t find a treatment in time for so many. But, it is unmistakable that these men did something great and quite remarkable through their efforts to push for something that few of those in power saw as a priority. The men who fought this battle are every bit the heroes that any soldier is. They saved countless lives through their efforts, and they deserve to be honored in more than just Academy Award nominated documentaries.

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