Like all plagues, it began with a lone person and then grew horribly vast – from the first recorded death in 1981 to 8.2 million world-wide by 1995. Unlike all plagues, the victims were initially and harshly stigmatized – turned away by hospitals, ignored by drug companies, condemned by churches and politicians and by deep thinkers like William Buckley who urged that the afflicted should bear an identifying tattoo. How to survive such a plague? Amid the archival footage of this telling documentary, the answer is clear: You don’t wait for help but demand it; you don’t accept the stigma but decry it; you don’t beseech the medical experts but become a medical expert. Society would do well to remember that, in large part, the most effective redress to the tragedy of AIDS came directly from the people with AIDS.
Lest we forget, director David France is intent on reminding us. He’s helped by the coincidence that the AIDS virus and the camcorder made their appearance on the planet at about the same time. Consequently, in year six of the plague, when a group of New Yorkers founded Act Up, their subsequent meetings and marches and protests were often videotaped. So were their faces and bodies, healthy and vibrant one moment, ravaged and sickly the next. Unearthing that footage from many scattered sources, France has edited it into a life-and-death history of the struggle – a raw history, often cluttered and sometimes repetitive but, when strategies fail along with immune systems, deeply affecting.
We’re introduced to the movement and its early leaders, bringing their fears and their urgency to a tiny hall in Greenwich Village. Some are older, like the playwright Larry Kramer. But most look astonishingly young, like Peter Staley, a closeted bond trader before contracting HIV; or Mark Harrington, an English Lit grad; or Bob Rasky, a PR guy who once trumpeted for Donald Trump. Exclaims one of their fresh-faced number: “It’s like being in a war – all around me friends are dropping dead.”
As the years tick by and the death toll mounts, the found footage shows the warriors battling on several fronts simultaneously – standing behind the microphones at international conferences, lying prostate on the street by the mayor’s office, scattering the ashes of lovers on the White House lawn. They will take on the sinners posing as saints, occupying the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hospital and the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And they will confront the bureaucrats masquerading as scientists, in the offices of the National Institute for Health and the Food and Drug Administration and the private research labs.
Most important, by sheer dint of awful necessity, they became scientists and researchers themselves – importing unapproved drugs, conducting trials, writing study designs and, eventually, convincing the government agencies to revise and expedite their programs.
Still, an effective treatment remained elusive and the doc doesn’t shy away from the internecine rage and factionalism within the AIDS community, weary of a war that seemed hopelessly lost. In particular, the camcorder catches Rasky at three regressive stages: first, vibrantly confronting Bill Clinton at a town hall meeting (prompting that famous “I feel your pain” response); later, his face pocked with lesions, quoting from Pericles at yet another funeral; finally, at his own, silent in casket.
At last, the breakthrough arrives with a drug cocktail that works. It took far too long but, if not for these consummately articulate heroes, dead and still living, it would have taken longer. Pulled back from the very brink, a survivor says of the cocktail’s effects on the virus: “Within 30 days, all of us were undetectable.” And now unforgettable, thanks to the film’s enduring message. Let’s ask it again: How to survive a plague? Simple: Fight like hell with fierce intelligence, make your own luck and hope to share in it, knowing that, then and even now, millions just as deserving will not.