How to Survive a Plague (review)

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How to Survive a Plague green light

I’m “biast” (pro): I lived through much of this (on the sidelines)

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

How is it possible that the AIDS quilt on the Mall in Washington DC was 20 years ago? It feels like yesterday… as do those heartbreaking images of so-recently vital and robust young men wasting away, and being so very worried about all my gay friends (who had all lost more than one of their friends), and pink triangles and “Silence = Death” as ubiquitous in New York City as McDonald’s golden arches and Duane Reade drugstores; the Starbucks mermaid hadn’t yet reached the same level of saturation. (I wasn’t only living in New York City during these very years, but also working in publishing, which is dominated by women and gay men.) Is this what getting old is about: history just feels like yesterday?

There is so much history in this startling documentary look at how activist groups pushed public health policy from Chelsea and Greenwich Village in New York in the 1980s and 90s. Because, yes, the film — the debut of documentarian David France, now nominated for an Oscar, and how cool must that be for your first film? — is overtly about how ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and its spinoff TAG (Treatment Action Group) became their own sort of scientists and researchers when the City of New York and the federal Food and Drug Administration dragged its heels on treatment and drug trials and everything to do with helping people with HIV and AIDS. But it is also about, to the side and on the sly, how this loud, angry demand by gay people to be treated as people is surely why, now, we’re on the cusp of full civil rights for homosexuals, from military service to marriage. The AIDS epidemic — which doesn’t get tagged a plague here in the film till one very dramatic moment that calls to mind the dictum about hanging together if you don’t want to hang separately — was the beginning of change that has only accelerated since then.

The world depicted here feels like something out of the distant past. Which is a good thing.

But yeah, that makes me feel old, too. Good thing it also makes me feel hopeful, to be reminded how far we’ve come in a relatively short time.

Not there isn’t disheartening stuff here as well. ACT-UP effectively did science by mob rule via its illegal importation of drugs from overseas and its own underground drug trials, plus its relentless pushback against the slowness of the FDA’s drug-approval process. That shouldn’t work; science doesn’t operate that way. Yet the fact that it did work suggests that what the FDA and private pharmaceutical corporations are doing isn’t science — or isn’t only science — but is more business and ass-covering and profiteering. Oh, and there’s some good — read: appalling — stuff about the Catholic Church’s stand on condoms and general willingness to let people suffer for its own political purposes. Which hasn’t changed at all in the intervening decades.

So while this ends up a glorious ode to the supposition that a small group of committed people can change the world, it also smacks us with the reality that the work is not yet done.

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Thu, Feb 21, 2013 7:28pm

And you tell that to kids these days, they won’t believe you.
Seriously, they won’t. I’ve met kids in their twenties who won’t believe that within their lifetimes it was regarded as weird and shameful to buy a condom. Good, in that it’s so alien to them; bad, because they won’t notice when the old men try to bring it back.

Allan Bassil
reply to  RogerBW
Wed, Mar 27, 2013 7:15pm

The old men, and women, have never stopped trying to bring it back. I’m always hoping all the loud and hateful noise we have to suffer from them are simply the death throes of a harmful and irrelevant bronze age theology.