Directed by: David France.
Written by: David France & Todd Woody Richman & Tyler H. Walk.
How to Survive a Plague mixes old news footage and home movies to tell the story of ACTUP – an organization that was enraged with government and drug company complacency during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s through the mid-1990s – when finally a combination of drugs was discovered that helped to prolong the lives of those infected with HIV. There is still no cure, but considering people were dying in a matter of months when the disease first came into being, and can now live seemingly indefinitely with it, this was a major breakthrough. That is happened has more to do with ACTUP than it does with the government.
The movie shows just how the group progressed – what they did through the years (starting in 1987) as the death count rises. ACTUP was smart enough right from the beginning to know they had to use the media to their advantage – so they had the type of protests that were too big for the media to ignore. They have media insiders teach them how to deliver catchy slogans that the media can grasp onto – the sound bite is more important than a speech – and know how to use grand gestures – huge banners reading “Silence = Death” or covering Senator Jesse Helms house (a hateful, hateful man) with a giant cloth condom. The system wasn’t working, they couldn’t change the system from within, so they did what they could to change it from the outside – and let everyone know they weren’t going anywhere.
Throughout the course of the movie, we will see them protest everyone from New York Mayor Ed Koch to then President George H.W. Bush (Reagan gets a pass, presumably since the movie begins late in his administration), to Helms, to the FDA and NIH, to various drug companies – and in 1992, Bill Clinton on the campaign trail. Their message really was simple – unless you step up and DO something, you are murdering us, and our blood will be on your hands.
It’s a provocative message, and I must say at times, I did think they were accusing the wrong people – but that hardly matters. They needed to guilt people into helping them, because nothing else was working. When AIDS first hit, hospitals did not want to diagnose people with the disease, or treat those who had it. Their bodies were often put in black garbage bags, and many funeral homes wouldn’t accept the bodies. Drugs, that were widely available in other countries, had not been approved by the FDA yet – it took them years to get through the “testing” phase, and people with AIDS did not have years to wait.
As with any group like ACTUP – from Vietnam Protesters to Occupy Wall Street and everything in between – eventually cracks start to emerge. Drugs still weren’t becoming available, and those that were didn’t help as much as hoped. Some wanted to get more involved in the inner workings of power – both in politics and the drug companies themselves – and others saw it as a waste of time. The movie pretty much skips over a few years in the early to mid-1990s when the new cocktail of drugs was discovered – saying only that it was “a dark time” – mostly because the group was fracturing, and people were still dying. But the movie ends with some inspiring moments. The only modern talking heads we had seen throughout most of the movie were those of scientists who worked tirelessly to research the disease and develop drugs to help those infected. Many of the faces we see during the course of movie who are infected say often that they expect to die. Many do. But some are still around today, and that is inspiring. And yet, for them, it seems more sad than that. They certainly feel a degree of survivor’s guilt over being the ones who didn’t die.
But overall, How to Survive a Plague is a tragic, yet inspiring story. Without ACTUP, who knows how long it would have taken for drugs that actually helps AIDS patient to become available. ACTUP is an example of how to protest effectively – and the value of doing so.