by David Lamble
In Act I of How to Survive a Plague, David French's riveting history of the New York City chapter of ACT UP, a smug and cynical-acting Mayor Edward I. Koch is pressed by a young reporter to defend his record. Film of the City Hall news conference is cut together with a feisty exchange among the Mayor's bitter opponents at an ACT UP membership meeting.
"Mr. Mayor, it wasn't until 1983 that you met with people to deal with the AIDS crisis. How do you respond to these criticisms?"
"That it's a falsehood."
[ACT UP mtg.: "If we end up in the Tombs, is there like a queer tank, and would you recommend that we ask to be there?"
["There is a homo tank, and I've been there, and it's better than the straight tank, let me tell you!"]
"Mr. Mayor, in the past you've described ACT UP members as fascist, yet in the press release you call them 'concerned citizens.'"
"Fascists can be concerned citizens. I don't believe they are fascists. I think they have used a fascist tactic."
While Koch exits the film at this point, his flippant demagoguery lingers as a haunting indictment of a political establishment that dithered for more than a decade as 1,000s of young men and women died from a modern plague. While French doesn't waste much time on these modern-day Neros, there are trenchant glimpses of George H.W. Bush playing golf, Bill Clinton challenging an AIDS activist heckler, and most deliciously, queer-baiting Senator Jesse Helms reacting to ACT UP protesters wrapping his Virginia residence in an enormous condom.
In his emotionally incendiary play The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer has his activist protagonist suggest a pithy and obscene vehicle for reaching Mayor Koch. "Hire a hunky hustler, and send him up to Gracie Mansion with our plea tattooed on his cock." While not quoting his famous play, French does have Kramer doing his impersonation of an angry Biblical prophet, restoring order at a chaotic ACT UP meeting with a look that would probably have gotten the job done in Sodom itself.
The bulk of Plague's nearly two-hour running time is devoted to an incisive portrait of how an extraordinary collection of ordinary citizens found each other in a crisis, figured out what the core problem was, and proceeded to attack it over a decade and a half, developing new tactics as they went, employing the full resources of the "greatest city in the world" media capital, but, at a time before the rollout of the Internet, YouTube, Google, Facebook and iPhones, relying significantly on brave mortals willing to sacrifice their bodies, Les Miserables-like, on the barricades. If you look closely, you can see an encounter between an NYPD mounted officer, his horse, and an implacable, middle-aged female protester that says everything that can be said about putting your body on the line when the times demand it.
French and his filmmaking team create some useful signposts on the film's timeline, roughly 1981-96, when the miracle combination-drug cocktails arrived. Each chapter starts from a blackout to a specific year, with a glimpse at a World AIDS death clock. As with David Weissman and Bill Weber's heroic depiction of how the San Francisco AIDS treatment model evolved in We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague deals with the totally scary early plague years, when People with AIDS (PWAS) were literally evicted from their homes, dumped by families and lovers, and often refused hospital treatment. There's a ghoulish scene where a snarling administrator tries to evict ACT UP demonstrators from his emergency room, in a moment reminiscent of the high satire of Paddy Chayefsky's 1971 farce The Hospital.
Plague launches an ambitious recollection of how members of a political mass movement turned themselves into the instruments for streamlining the Food and Drug Administration's lengthy drug approval process, and more significantly, actually partnered with FDA staff and drug company scientists to create new combinations of the toxic ingredients that would eventually slash HIV viral loads and save upwards of six million lives.
As the world turns and French's AIDS Death Clock spins, I flashback on the memory of my good friend Robert P., and his desperate battle (circa 1990) to stay alive by taking what a female ACT UP member calls "what the hell" drugs: "There's some evidence it could be useful, it's unlikely to be harmful, what the hell!" For months Robert ingested egg lipids, Chinese cucumbers and the like in a futile bid to stave off the ticking bomb within, as I reported on KQED radio. In the film, there's what can only be termed a dark-comedy moment where volunteer Derek Link explains his job volunteering at the People with AIDS Health Group, "the largest underground buyers' club in the United States. We help people import drugs from other countries that are unapproved here, a whole variety of things for your treatment pleasure, none of which work, by the way."
As one hardy survivor, Jim Eigo, recalls, people were desperate to get even the most risibly ridiculous "treatments" on the black market, "but we didn't want a black market, we wanted to make the real market work." And work it finally did – after years, and countless lives, and an almost civil war within ACT UP over the controversial tactics of "collaborating with the enemy," namely the FDA and drug companies. Victory was finally declared, not because of the politicians, but very much in spite of them.
One of the most uplifting moments at the end of this magnificent film is the sight of the hardy band of survivors who have aged normally, and now, paradoxically, face the once-unthinkable question of what to do with the rest of their lives.