David France's How to Survive a Plague is a chronicle of those turbulent years through the eyes of Act Up, an organization dedicated to raising not just awareness, but funds for AIDS research and demanding that pharmaceutical companies and the United States government do more to stop the plague.
It's an admirable goal, to be sure. The AIDS epidemic was met with resounding indifference in many circles due to ignorance, a lack of understanding, and in some cases outright hate. Act Up strove to fight that indifference by being too loud and too aggressive to ignore. But therein lies the rub.
|Peter Staley in a scene from David France’s HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. |
Photo by William Lucas Walker. A Sundance Selects release.
France never explores these questions, and instead exalts Act Up without ever questioning its tactics. In fact, How to Survive a Plague almost feels like an official advertisement for Act Up, trumpeting their accomplishments while refusing to hold them accountable. France never asks what kind of impact their more militant actions had on the public perception of the gay community at such a critical juncture in the gay rights movement. At a time when gay rights were severely unpopular while taking baby steps toward mainstream acceptance, it would seem that such radical tactics would do little to assuage the fears many had about LGBT people at the time. Who would want to sit down and listen to a group of people who is yelling at you so angrily?
|A scene from David France’s HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. |
Copyright © Donna Binder. A Sundance Selects release.
Bill Clinton had it right when he confronted an angry activist by telling them that their hateful attacks made them no better than the agents of intolerance that they railed against. I wanted the film to explore that angle, but it is a stone that is left disappoingly unturned. France clearly has an agenda, and while there's nothing necessarily wrong with that (this is an advocacy doc, after all), I thnk it would have benefited from a more balanced approach. The AIDS epidemic was a huge crisis whose repercussions still echo today. But what of those people who fought for recognition when the crisis was just beginning. 30 years later, you would think that we would have reached a point where we can examine its roots from all sides, how it came to be and how it was stopped. Instead we are saddled with this one sided documentary that focuses very much on the how but not so much on the why. Was there a better way? Perhaps. But How to Survive a Plague is not the film to ask those questions, and as such feels like a far more shallow experience than it really should be.
GRADE - ★★ (out of four)
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE | Directed by David France | Not Rated | Now playin in select cities and On Demand.