Dallas Buyers Club is the newest award-show buzz-maker to hit movie theaters. The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff, a real-life Texas good ol’ boy who in 1985 was diagnosed with AIDS and given a month to live. Woodruff was nothing if not resourceful, and he dove full-time into the underground market for drugs not approved by the FDA. He ended up living another seven years, during which time he ran the eponymous Dallas Buyers Club, which disseminated these quasi-legal treatments to other AIDS sufferers in the area. The film is both a standard Hollywood biopic and a standard Hollywood AIDS movie. It wraps a person’s life into an easily-unwrapped package (“He learned how to live! And overcame his prejudices!”) and at the same time uses people suffering from AIDS as an easy avenue for tragedy. McConaughey is stratospherically great in the movie, continuing his recent career uptick, but he’s the only thing remarkable about it.
A lot of movies about AIDS exploit our fear of disease and decay. This makes sense given that it’s a global pandemic, that for a while it seemed incurable, that for a long time there was a great deal of confusion over how it is spread, and that it’s a terrible way to die. But this kind of narrative is often in service to the “tragic queer” cliche. Vito Russo observed that cinema has an unfortunate tendency to kill off LGBTQ characters, and there is more than one ending to an AIDS story besides early death. There were many people who fought back, not just against their disease but against the social forces that were working against them. Dallas Buyers Club halfway comes to that story, but ultimately it’s still about victimization. Woodruff died before his time. There are better stories about survival to be told. And one of them is a documentary, freely available if you have Netflix Instant.
How to Survive a Plague covers the same time period as Dallas Buyers Club, from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, the most politically and culturally inflammatory years of the AIDS epidemic in America. The doc chronicles the actions of two of the major groups that were formed to pressure the government to invest more money and time in research for treatment of HIV and AIDS: The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, formed in 1987; and the Treatment Action Group (TAG), which splintered off from ACT UP in 1992. When AIDS first began to spread, it seemed to only affect those on the fringe, like gay people and drug users, so the government was content to ignore it. These groups and others fought a long, bitter struggle for attention, and without them,we’d be even further behind in AIDS research than we already are.
But the members of ACT UP and TAG weren’t just activists. They were lifelines for each other. As depicted in Dallas Buyers Club, people all over the country set up connections to bring in foreign drugs. The FDA was dragging its feet on a subject that urgently needed their attention, so without an official source of medicine available, people found their own. They imported drugs from Canada, Japan, Mexico, India and more. It was never clear what would and what wouldn’t prove effective, but these were desperate times, and anything that could potentially prolong a life was welcome. What the doc celebrates is how people, when neglected by their institutions, came together to take care of themselves.
In tackling the same topic, Dallas Buyers Club arrives at a different theme: that well-worn American ideal of individualism triumphing over the system. Ron Woodruff beat the FDA and the doctors, the film tells us. But the real Woodruff relied on his network of connections to accomplish what he did, and the movie treats them as nothing more than his customers. The movie itself acknowledges that 71% of AIDS sufferers at the time were gay men, and yet this is a story about a straight guy, with the gay men firmly backgrounded. They are embodied in Jared Leto’s character, a transsexual drug addict who exists mainly to teach Ron to no longer be bigoted before dying tragically, as gay men seem so prone to do in film. How to Survive a Plague is actually about gay people, and the power of community.
The doc has not one central figure but a crowd of intriguing characters. There’s Peter Staley, who went from being a closeted Wall Street stooge to a full-time activist. There’s playwright Larry Kramer, who helped found ACT UP. There’s Bob Rafsky, who made a name for himself in confronting public figures face-to-face, including President Clinton. The best part is that the movie doesn’t treat the gay community as a monolithic entity. It not only acknowledges but explores the ideological differences that they had in how best to approach their goals, which led to members of ACT UP leaving the group to form TAG. But that was not a weakness, it was a strength. While they could not present a single united front, they could attack the issue from multiple angles in this way.
Dallas Buyers Club pays lip service to ingenuity in the face of adversity, but it really renders the AIDS issue too safe. It’s still a story about a man who got the disease because of his lifestyle and paid for his choices with his death. But many of the characters in How to Survive a Plague are still alive, because they took their lives into their hands, and into the hands of their friends. In Dallas Buyers Club, the gay man sasses out life lessons and then dies pitifully, and that’s an image we’ve seen more than enough. In How to Survive a Plague, gay men and women storm government buildings, scream at politicians, cover an idiot senator’s house with a giant condom, and they live. That’s a story we need to hear more.