The heroes of "How to Survive a Plague" stare death in the face. They send crowds into battle. Some don't survive; others, faced with crushing odds, persevere and emerge transformed.
When it's over, this documentary lingers as a testament to extraordinary human bravery. It stands as one of the most heartbreaking and suspenseful sagas of the year.
Directed and co-written by the author David France (who wrote "Our Fathers," an account of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal), "How to Survive a Plague" tracks the history of AIDS activism - specifically, the mobilization of New York City activists in response to ineffective treatment and governmental foot-dragging - with piles of archival footage from the movement's beginnings through its growth and metamorphosis as the epidemic ballooned. Hindsight gives the earliest clips an urgency, a poignancy, that cleaves recent history into good guys and bad: Knowing what we know about the epidemiology of AIDS, it's hard to stomach the evasions, procrastination and rank homophobia faced by early activists.
A clutch of protagonists soon materialize: Peter Staley, the ex-bond trader who became an impassioned spokesman for ACT UP; Bob Rafsky, a publicist and divorced dad who came out at 40; and Mark Harrington, a Harvard-educated film archivist who wrote up a comprehensive treatment guide despite no formal medical background.
All of these characters show up in raw, rattling footage documenting ACT UP's planning sessions (some of them raucous with infighting), protests and appearances at AIDS conferences. Dotted throughout are current interviews with many prominent figures, including playwright Larry Kramer (whose award-winning play about AIDS, "The Normal Heart," just opened at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco). France opted to withhold certain present-day interviews until much later in the movie, turning the tales of key players into nail-chewing cinematic cliffhangers.
These men are HIV-positive. They all might die. As we hear Staley and Rafsky tell Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes," they expect to. Who makes it and who doesn't are matters of history, of course, and anyone anywhere could divine their fates with a cursory Google. Just don't. Let the heroes conclude their sagas with mystery, and courage, and tears.