How to Survive a Plague

David France’s documentary chronicles the turbulent formative years of ACT UP, a socially essential and historically momentous response to the AIDS epidemic. Working with a well-assembled archive-footage mosaic, France builds a group portrait of unequivocally heroic activists organizing themselves under apocalyptic duress, raging against unconscionably sluggish drug research and regulation, and most certainly earning the authority implied by the film’s title. One through-line is the eloquent, desperate fury of Bob Rafsky, the man who was told “I feel your pain” by President Bill Clinton, before being told off by him. “The question,” Rafsky says elsewhere, “is what does a decent society do with people who hurt themselves because they’re human?” In the grand scheme to which France remains warmly receptive, even the group’s infighting yields hard-won understanding, and points the way toward a deeply touching epilogue that summons much power from simple images of aging, living faces.