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‘How to Survive a Plague’ Review: Turns Out You Can Fight City Hall, Even When It’s the White House

Stirring documentary connects the dots between ACT UP’s media-savvy protests and the creation of the “cocktail” that made AIDS less of a death sentence

As AIDS has changed in the United States, so has the AIDS documentary. When the epidemic began in the 1980s, the disease was almost inescapably fatal, killing off thousands at an alarming rate; subsequently, the movies on the subject were heart-breaking, tragic pieces like “Silverlake Life” and “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.”

With the later development of protease inhibitors — popularly known as the “AIDS cocktail” — the death rates slowed dramatically. And the story of how those drugs came to be is told in a new kind of AIDS documentary, the empowering and uplifting “How to Survive a Plague,” which shows how a committed band of protesters challenged the system and won.

“Plague” takes us back the early 1980s, when a mysterious “cancer” was ravaging the gay community, wreaking havoc on people’s immune systems before leaving them dead. In New York City, an ever-growing group of gay men and women and their allies began gathering to deal with the crisis head-on (in the absence of any action by the Reagan/Bush White House or Mayor Ed Koch), eventually forming the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and, later, the Treatment Action Group (TAG).

ACT UP quickly proved itself to be media-savvy, mounting a series of attention-getting protests everywhere from the White House to the Centers for Disease Control to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And part of that savviness was to film every meeting and every protest action, often with multiple cameras. (And this was back in the pre-digital age, when cameras were big and bulky and often accompanied by a heavy shoulder pack for batteries and cassettes.)

Thanks to that profusion of documentation devices, director David France has the opportunity to use cut-aways and multiple angles, a rare privilege for documentary filmmakers dealing with archival footage. The opportunity to edit within scenes of ACT UP in action gives “Plague” a great deal of its energy, but it’s certainly not the only source of adrenaline.

Most of these activists were HIV-positive themselves, and through their efforts to be heard by the government and within the medical establishment, they were literally fighting for their lives. Over the course of the struggle we see people from various walks of life (former Wall Streeter Peter Staley, playwright Larry Kramer, student-turned-journalist Garance Franke-Ruta) educate themselves about physiology and pharmacology and the politics of health so that they could navigate the corridors of power and negotiate for real change.

Even those familiar with the history of the AIDS crisis and ACT UP may find themselves drawn in by first-time director France’s storytelling skills, as he directly connects the dots between ACT UP and TAG’s efforts and the creation and distribution of the cocktail while also letting us get to know a handful of the men and women so integral to this battle.

Whether your own politics relate to Occupy Wall Street or to the Tea Party, “How to Survive a Plague” provides a powerful reminder of the ability of committed men and women to agitate, organize and create real change in the world. It’s a blueprint for fighting the power and an energizing, bracing encouragement for rabble-rousers everywhere.