The movie, one of this year's nominees for a best feature documentary Academy Award, depicts the coming together of a community to become grassroots activists and self-taught scientists who could hold their own with medical professionals in debating the efficacy of treatment and prescribing ways to marshal resistance to the proliferation the opportunistic and resilient virus. But it also illuminates the struggles and the fracturing of alliances which took place within ACT UP itself and how the movement was able to survive even the well-intended differences of the individuals within it. How to Survive a Plague is a frightening film in many ways, but it’s also an exhilarating one which offers a glimpse into a particular strategy of resistance motivated both by desperation and intellectually proactive, communally-based decision making.
Many of the central activist figures of the film (including former Wall Street broker Peter Staley, pictured above) were involved in the birth pangs of the fight against the disease, and they admit in footage now some 10-15 years old that they fully expect to be consumed by the virus and die long before a cure is found. So one of the most gratifying sights this marvelous document has to offer is the faces of the baby-faced Staley and others seen near the film’s conclusion, in the wake of the development of combination treatments, sporting gray hair, crow’s feet, taking on the natural weight and carriage of age and looking healthy, even as they are haunted by the ravages of survivor’s guilt.
It’s a strange coincidence that I’d see this movie the night before the announcement of the death of former NYC mayor Ed Koch, himself a closeted gay man and a central figure of indifferent villainy in the struggles of the ACT UP movement. Stranger still is the story of Koch, in his final years a movie reviewer (!) for the Yonkers Tribune, having written about How to Survive a Plague, with nary a mention of his own role in the film. In his short review Koch appears finally to have seen the light as to the immeasurably valuable efforts put forth by the men and women who brought themselves together to fight a disease he apparently spent his most powerful years trying to ignore. If only the light bulb had popped on 30 years earlier.
Further reading: Did How to Survive a Plague change Ed Koch's mind? Also, David Edelstein's review of the new documentary on Ed Koch, which was, in another cosmic coincidence, released in New York City on the day of the announcement of Koch's death.