Movie review: 'Survive a Plague' chronicles the fight against AIDS

Review • Footage illuminates heroic work of activists.
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The documentary "How to Survive a Plague" is a riveting look at LGBT protesters during the AIDS crisis — and an object lesson that if the revolution is going to be televised, it's good to have the revolutionaries holding the cameras.

Director David France chronicles the depths of the AIDS epidemic from 1987 to 1995, when things were at their worst and the death toll rose from 500,000 to 8.2 million. The chronicle is told through the stories of the LGBT activists who formed the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which started pretty much as a group of friends in a living room, worried about what an HIV-positive diagnosis meant for their futures, while people they knew and loved were dying.

While ACT UP's protests — usually against pharmaceutical companies and the Food and Drug Administration, for inaction on developing or approving treatments for HIV — got all the attention, it was another arm of the group that was making progress toward a cure. The Treatment and Data Committee (or T&D for short) started after Iris Long, a retired chemist from outside the gay community, came to an ACT UP meeting and tutored members on the medical and bureaucratic lingo needed to decipher the drug-approval process.

Soon, activists were going from protesting drug companies and the FDA to working with them to launch testing regimens. But that change brought with it contention, as factions within ACT UP bickered about whether the group was being sold out. (This leads to the movie's single most dynamic moment: a 1991 ACT UP meeting where the feuding leads playwright/activist Larry Kramer to shut everyone up by yelling, in a tone that's equal parts French Revolutionary and Jewish grandmother, "Plague! We are in the middle of a f—-ing plague, and you behave like this?")

France occasionally overindulges his subjects, letting archival segments run long to play up the activists' heroic exploits. (A clip of activist Peter Staley on CNN's "Crossfire" goes on mostly to give audiences time to hiss at Pat Buchanan.)

But there are real heroes to be found here, and none more dynamic than Bob Rafsky, whose finest moment is replayed here: heckling then-candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 about his silence on AIDS, evoking from Clinton the immortal line "I feel your pain" — which is a lot more heartfelt in context than 20 years of jokes since have made of it.

Moments like that give "How to Survive a Plague" a raw, vital quality that makes it essential viewing for any student of recent American history. It provides a powerful example of people who are most alive as they contemplate their imminent death. —


'How to Survive a Plague'

A vivid documentary uses riveting footage to trace the history of the AIDS epidemic and LGBT activists' work to combat it.

Where • Tower Theatre.

When • Opens Friday, Oct. 19.

Rating • Not rated, but probably R for language and some sexual content.

Running time • 120 minutes.