By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
It’s been long enough so that the time seems right for a thorough documentary look at the mature era of AIDS awareness — in other words, the mid-to-late 1980s, when the mysterious new “cancer” had been identified, nobody knew how to treat or talk about it and gay men seemed to be the most common victims.
“How to Survive a Plague” is such a recollection, filtered through the specific lens of the history of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the belligerent but effective militancy organization formed in 1987 by playwright Larry Kramer and others.
Director David France has been selective about which of the group’s escapades to include, with just a hint that at times they may have pulled stunts that backfired. For the most part, this is an admiring account of an organization in crisis mode.
France skillfully describes the early intimations of AIDS, and the history of ACT UP’s efforts to sometimes agitate, sometimes cooperate with authorities. All the while, there’s a ticking clock in the form of researchers, and their efforts to find a magic bullet that will turn AIDS patients into survivors.
Although ACT UP might have been most notorious for its pranks and its demonstrations, the movie presents a thoughtful narrative involving its most serious members, who took it upon themselves to learn almost as much science as the doctors looking for a cure — indeed, they prepared studies and guidelines that were adopted as part of the search for treatments.
Many ACT UP members are interviewed for the film, although we don’t see some of them in their present-day form until the end. France withholds this information, as though daring us to wonder who might have died before the right treatment was found.
As a strategy, it’s a little manipulative, but it has a powerful effect in the final 10 minutes of the movie. Meanwhile, the focus is on specific individuals from the era: Larry Kramer, the loudest ACT UP figurehead, is merely one of a group of people the film focuses on.
The movement was lucky to get the articulate Peter Staley, a bond trader at JP Morgan who became a spokesman for ACT UP.
In one vintage clip from “Crossfire,” Staley manages to win over Pat Buchanan and demolish his objections, all without raising his voice.
That footage is part of a mountain of vintage material the film uses. It’s an indicator about how documentaries of the future will function in the age of ubiquitous cameras: the personal camcorder was just coming in during the 1980s, and France apparently has footage of just about every significant happening from this chronology, big and small events, all documented (sometimes by multiple sources). The picture quality might not be stellar, but it tells a story.
“How to Survive a Plague” (3 stars)
A compelling documentary account of the agitations and negotiations of ACT UP, the AIDS advocacy organization that took a belligerent approach to demanding action during the 1980s and 90s. The narrative is powerful, and director David France has access to a mountain of camcorder footage shot during various meetings, demonstrations, and pranks.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for language.
Showing: Egyptian theater.