‘How to Survive a Plague’: extremism with tangible results

There was a time not too long ago when the Oscar best documentary category was famous for overlooking the most notable non-fiction films of any given year.

Mini-scandals swirled around the omission of “Hoop Dreams” and “The Thin Blue Line.” 9 times out of 10 if a documentary was well-reviewed and did any business at all it wouldn’t be nominated.

The Motion Picture Academy responded to the critics, reorganized the administration of the category and things have been much better ever since.

It’s unlikely that the politically charged “How to Survive a Plague” — about the role of the activist group ACT-UP in the early days of the AIDS crisis — would have received a nomination a decade ago, but it stands a good chance of winning an Oscar Sunday night.

The film is already available on most of the major movie streaming services — including Amazon Prime — and the DVD will be released on Feb. 26.

Director David France tells the story of the radicals who weren’t willing to restrict themselves to orderly protests and patience after it became clear in the early 1980s that a disease was decimating the gay population, and that federal and local governments didn’t seem to care.

Activists such as Larry Kramer (who would write the landmark AIDS play “The Normal Heart”) angered many of his gay peers with his fierce, unbridled approach to the early stages of the AIDS crisis, but “How to Survive a Plague” makes a strong case that without ACT-UP’s “extremism” treatment regimens would have been delayed for many years.

HIV and AIDS have been a mostly manageable condition for so long now that it is easy to forget the horror of the 1980s when people were getting sick so quickly and dying so rapidly in such large numbers.

France shows us how ACT-UP was a more complex organization than the contemporary press accounts indicated. The protestors got everyone’s attention and applied real pressure on government agencies, but behind the scenes, the organization was gathering and analyzing scientific information that would spur the breakthroughs that led to today’s treatments.

The movie includes a wide array of contemporary interviews with key figures such as Larry Kramer, but France has also gained access to large archives of video and film that were shot on the frontlines almost 30 years ago. The result is a vivid “present tense” sense of what it was like at the protests and at the passionate meetings where strategies were debated.

“How to Survive a Plague” combines history and advocacy in a very potent package — who knows how many activist groups will use the film as a blueprint in the future?

Joe Meyers