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Movie review: 'Plague' documents extraordinary pioneers in AIDS fight

Posted 1:27pm on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012

Unrated (adult themes); 110 min.

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. 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, protests and appearances at AIDS conferences. Dotted throughout are current interviews with many prominent figures, including playwright Larry Kramer. 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.

Exclusive: Angelika Dallas

-- Amy Biancolli, Houston Chronicle

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