DVD Review - How to Survive a Plague

Peter Staley on CNN's 'Crossfire' as a scene
in "How to Survive a Plague"
This Oscar-nominated film was the presumptive winner going into the 85th Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature. It won the Gotham Award for Best Documentary. It also won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary. It was nominated for a Spirit Award, a Directors Guild Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Yet, the problem I had with it is similar to one of my problems with Gus Van Sant's Milk (2008). The movie is more about the movement than it is the men involved.

Director David France mostly gathers footage that was shot by or are shots of the organization known as ACT-UP, which stands for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The organization was comprised of activists trying to get the government to provide more money to fund research for treatment that would ultimately help the sick with drugs. The activists also staged protests to that effect or to raise media awareness to inform the public and community or create the pressure for change or acceptance.

A lot of the footage is of ACT-UP meetings and protests in the streets. Some is also news footage. A key figure who emerges from this footage is Peter Staley. There is a great scene where we see Staley on the CNN show Crossfire, but, besides being a handsome mouthpiece, I don't know too much about who Staley is.

This might be the point, but to follow a person in a movie, it's best if we know something about that person. Beside appearing on TV or giving speeches, what kind of a person is Staley? What are his interests? What did he do with friends? I get that his activism consumed his life, but over the course of thirty years, Staley must have had other, outside interests. The same goes for other people in the spotlight in this film.

There have been other movies that have done that. Perhaps, France did not want his film to do the same. Perhaps, it wanted this film to be about the protests and the sheer activism of ACT-UP, and getting personal or intimate details about the activists or any of the people involved here was not his goal.

France includes a scene where names are being read in conjunction with the displaying of an AIDS quilt. Some of the names were recognizable, but most were just random names. With no information about who these people are, these random names are simply that. They're random and rather meaningless.

This is not to say that any one who has died due to AIDS or HIV is meaningless. All those lives were precious and important and beautiful, but from a cinematic standpoint, something is lost when their names are simply read and we're not shown who they are. It's also odd that the movie didn't make more of an issue of the apparent homophobia.

Three Stars otu of Five.
Not Rated but recommend for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 49 mins.


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