How to Survive a Plague – review

Another year, another Aids documentary. Is there enough shocked compassion left in the world? The lethality of Aids – thanks be – is now history; at least in countries where drug treatment can be afforded. In countries where it can’t, How to Survive a Plague may be a cruel reminder of the geographical lottery that is life-saving medicine. David France’s documentary about the 1980s/90s American gay community and its leading role in discovering “combination therapy” – the anti-HIV magic bullet – will be inspiring among audiences from the G20. The countries of Purgatory Ltd (poorest Africa, poorest Asia) may think a parallel-screen documentary should be shown in cinemas, simultaneously, about how they are still begging for help.

Whatever you think, it is amazing that the victims helped to achieve the victory. As France’s film chronicles, it was TAG (Treatment Action Group), a self-appointed group of mostly HIV-infected men and women, who in early 1990s California initiated fresh research and demanded new drug trials. They badgered the pharmaceutical companies; they hollered at President George Bush (the first) and heckled aspiring president Bill Clinton. In a moment of hustings history, culled from the archives, the Democratic contender heckled eloquently back. (As the globetrotting Aids health ambassador he has become more recently, he has earned the retrospective right.)

One other oratorical moment stands out. During the bickering nadir of a gay action-group meeting torn by factionalism, the playwright-activist Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart) suddenly interrupts and silences everyone with a blazing cry of “Plague!” His improvised speech, gathering near-Shakespearean power, goes on to proclaim a literal plague on all parties if they persist in putting the divisions of petty politicking before the deaths and dyings in their midst. Sense and salvation, it seems for a moment, must have started right here. But by movie’s end we know it took more than that. To one moment’s rhetorical inspiration you must add ensuing years of aspiration, perspiration and, for the tragic victims who didn’t survive to the medical breakthrough, expiration.

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