The AIDS epidemic, from infancy to crisis, as well as the birth of community activist organizations ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) who would lead the way galvanizing world-wide support against the disease.
Here’s what I wrote about this one in my Theatrical Review:
“As an award-winning journalist, David France has been covering the AIDS crisis for 30 years. His work in LGBT community papers, The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ and New York magazine has spoken for itself for over three decades, his connection to people and their stories practically one of a kind.
So it only makes sense that his documentary debut How to Survive a Plague ends up being maybe the definitive chronicle of this epidemic as well as the grassroots community organizations that blossomed across the country in response to it. This is the story of the fight against AIDS, against political and social indifference, about corporate and public indifference. It is the story of a group of fighters who knew there was a problem but hadn’t the first clue what the correct first step was going to be, their only security the knowledge that said step had to happen right away or any chance to have previously silent voices heard might be lost forever.
So, that might be a bit of hyperbole on my part, but not by much. France looks at the rise of organizations like ACT UP out of New York’s Greenwich Village with a clear eye and without a heavy hand, using copious amounts of source material – i.e. videos, news footage, photos, news clippings, etc. – to tell his tale. He lets the voices of those involved in the fight speak for themselves, everything propelling forward in a way that is kinetically enthralling. The documentary almost becomes something like a real world ticking clock political thriller a la Argo or All the President’s Men, the whole thing a mesmerizing descent down the rabbit hole that would be unbelievable if it wasn’t all 100-percent true.
The whole story is here. Playwright Larry Kramer’s incendiary speech which led to the birth of ACT UP. The first appearance of the pink triangle coupled with the slogan, “Silence = Death.” The approval of AZT by the FDA and its subsequent release, the most expensive drug ever to hit the open market. President Ronald Reagan labeling the disease, “Public Enemy No. 1,” but only after 20,000 Americans had died. Teenage activist Ryan White’s death from AIDS at the age of 18. The formation of the Treatment Action Group (TAG) in 1992. Magic Johnson’s stunning announcement that he was/is HIV-positive.
France weaves all of this material together brilliantly, and hearing the voices of those who were there on the ground floor when it all happened is borderline staggering. More so is the haunting, emotionally powerful coda when the surviving members of this fight who we’ve been following for the entire film finally make an appearance, seeing them now having an awesome, almost magisterial impact upon me that left me visibly moved. How to Survive a Plague isn’t just a great documentary, it’s a great movie, period, and without a doubt France’s debut is one of the more profoundly inspiring efforts I’ve seen this year.”
How to Survive a Plague was fifth on my 2012 Top Ten list, and for those who know me they know I’m extremely reticent (some would say too reticent) to put documentaries on my yearly best-of list. I’ve watched it four times now and France’s film retains its power each and every viewing. In all honesty, this, not Searching for Sugar Man (an extremely nice and entertaining film but not really more than that), should have taken home the Academy Award for Best Documentary, and I think it goes without saying this film will stand the test of time something fierce.
How to Survive a Plague is presented with a 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer.
The DVD features English Dolby Digital 5.1 and includes optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Extras include a smashing, energetic and informational Audio Commentary with director David France and ACT UP activists Heidi Dorow, Joy Episalla, Bob Lederer and Ron Medley. Also included are a rather nice selection of Deleted Scenes as well as the film’s Original Theatrical Trailer.
How to Survive a Plague is a seriously great motion picture, not just a great documentary. It deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Here’s hoping now that it is available on DVD that’s exactly what is going to happen.