Sometimes when the gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer goes on a tear, when he really lays into somebody about being politically lazy or not wearing a condom, you can feel inadequate, like just getting up every day and breathing isn’t enough. You hear rage, and you actually have to stop and ask yourself: Did I fight for something today? And then realize that the answer is “no,” that all you did was go to work, buy a $90 T-shirt, come home, and watch a rerun of “Will & Grace.”
What you sense from Kramer is a kind of annoyance at cultural complacency. With him and some other activists, it’s fury in a time of “Modern Family.” Kramer has a moment of seismic rage in the new AIDS activism documentary, “How to Survive a Plague.” The ACT UP movement has turned from acting out for drugs that work to acting in — to splitting apart — and, at a packed meeting in the early 1990s, Kramer interrupts a man’s tirade to do the kind of belittling only he can perform. “Plaaaaague,” Kramer shouts, and the room falls silent. He says the word again and proceeds to explain how insulting the infighting is. Even if the concerns that led to the infighting are legitimate, what’s the point of tearing at each other this way? People are dying. Right now.
Kramer is not the central figure of this astonishing movie. He’s been given his due many times. He’s more the presiding spirit, the patron saint of moral castigation. That moment and most of the rest of the film is courtesy of camcorder footage. The director David France and his crew have sculpted years of old broadcast-news stories and home videos into a narrative that is impressionistic in its scope but coherent in its feeling. It seems passionately remembered. This movie is alive — hot, really — with the political seething at the federal government’s failure to help combat the spread of AIDS with effective medical treatments.
France focuses on a handful of infected men who, along with Kramer, lead ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and, eventually, a splinter outfit called the Treatment Action Group (TAG). They include Mark Harrington, Gregg Bordowitz, a lawyer named David Barr, and a former bond trader named Peter Staley. Some of this footage belongs to them, and in some of it, they and a couple of other activists sit around someone’s apartment and muse, over wine, about the movement and whether they’ll die before they see it through. These men are fighting for their lives.
It’s hard to overstate how ingenious France’s formal choices are, this old footage rising up and reminding us of how, in part, we arrived at the moment we’re in, where gay civil rights is less vociferously focused on finding cures for AIDS and HIV and is more energized around the fight for legal marriage. You think about riots and violent causes in other parts of the world, at other times in history. You think about what it means to speak out for and against anything. We’re in 1980s and 1990s USA in this film, but, rightly or not, it could be France in 1968, South Africa during apartheid, or parts of the Middle East now.
ACT UP tapped into a national primacy about homosexuality, morality, and health care. It did so with righteousness, yes. But it also did so with wit. After the flamboyantly bigoted Jesse Helms makes a speech in the Senate, activists erect an enormous condom outside his North Carolina home. The film uses that moment as rousing levity.
But it also captures the emotional madness of the time. The buildings of the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health are under siege. The offices of drug companies are bombarded. Amid wild protests during the George H.W. Bush administration, activists are dumping the contents of urns on the White House lawn. And in another unforgettable exchange, an infected activist named Bob Rafsky heckles Bill Clinton during the 1992 Democratic primary and Clinton retaliates with an angry compassion that only Kramer could top.
We’re now far enough from that era that seeing it all again feels like a slap to the face in the same way that watching certain moments in the civil rights epic “Eyes on the Prize” chills your bones. This doesn’t have that series’ stately magnitude. It’s smaller and crasser, but it’s comparatively galvanic. The material has been shaped in an artful manner that devastates, rouses, and shames. When France cuts to some of the TAG men in the sparingly used studio interviews, you realize you’re not simply looking at activists, you’re beholding war heroes. And then the inadequacy sets in: What did I fight for today?
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.