How to Survive a Plague may be the finest example of a documentary that operates on the principles of a suspense movie. That’s not to ignore the extraordinary story of courage and anger and heroism that is, in its essence, the story of Act Up (and spin-off TAG), but to marvel at the artistry of the director, David France, and his team of editors.
Drawing on found footage, they have managed to turn the bleakest period in gay history into an animating, often gripping, David and Goliath story in which a bold band of men and women harness their anger to galvanize the wider community, and ultimately transform the way government and the drugs industry approached the funding and development of treatments for HIV and AIDS.
Amazingly there are moments of levity that speak to a long gay tradition of theater and wit—activists enveloping the home of Jesse Helms with a giant condom; video clips of Ray Navarro, dressed as Jesus, outside St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York; Mark Harrington, a brilliant Harvard grad making the most of a cigarette as he records a PSA; and a spunky young former bond trader, Peter Staley, brilliantly debating Pat Buchanan on Crossfire. The flipside, of course, was the pain and fury coursing through the gay community as the body count mounted throughout the Reagan-Bush years.
A scene of activists gently scattering the ashes of their loved ones over the White House lawn is devastating. There’s also a moment, during the infighting that ultimately hobbled Act Up, in which a fearsome Larry Kramer silences a squabbling room with a primal howl of indignation: “Plague! We are in the middle of a plague!” It really was a plague. It still is a plague. But thanks to the work of the men and women of Act Up—gay and straight—many millions today are alive who would not otherwise have survived. And thanks to How to Survive a Plague, posterity will remember them.
How to Surive a Plague opens in select theaters September 21.
Watch a video of audience reactions to the film:
Watch the trailer below: