“How to Survive a Plague” documents activists, most infected with HIV, who realized that America’s traditional health care system — the cavalry, so to speak — was not coming, not with the Food and Drug Administration taking an average of seven years to test and approve new drugs – years those infected did not have.
The one FDA-approved drug, AZT, cost $10,000 per year, had strong side effects, and was effective in only half the cases. The only solution, then, was for activists to become conversant with eye-glazing medical research, and push for quicker approval of select new drugs. One such drug, for example, was sold over the counter in Japan, but was not legally approved in America.
These activists were not Hollywood-style heroes — healthy, virile and good-looking. Rather, most had been stricken by the disease. The documentary, in effect, showed people rising from their death beds to march and be arrested while making noise to prioritize the fight against AIDS.
Having lived through this epidemic as a reporter for an ultraconservative New York daily, I witnessed up close not only the travails of the protesters, but also those fighting them. These include religious and social zealots who put out misinformation about gays and AIDS. In particular, I remember one reporter spreading the then popular, if false, idea that the disease could be transmitted by mosquitoes. Therefore, infected gays should be quarantined. Amid such extreme hatred, how could sickly gay activists possibly hope to win?
But win they did. A core group, based in Greenwich Village, coalesced into Act Up, a life and death community to press for change. Surprisingly, Act Up, centered on fewer than a dozen leaders — not exactly the number needed to make a revolution. And yet, they sprung a healthcare revolution, leading to lives saved and a virus largely kept in check while a cure still awaits.
“Argo” centered on American operative Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, who volunteers to sneak the six American embassy hostages out of Iran. This was at a time when mobs roamed the streets and publicly hung alleged anti-regime “collaborators” from construction cranes dotting downtown. In the Ayatollah’s Iran, death was not only swift and cruel; it was also public, maximizing fear.
To sneak out the hostages, Mendez and his allies concocted a barely plausible story of scouting Iran for an upcoming Hollywood movie — which was really a fake. The hostages were given false identities as the alleged production crew. What emerges is not only Mendez’s courage in this endeavor, but also the courage of the Canadian ambassador to Iran, who hid the six hostages at his Tehran quarters and issued them with Canadian passports. Without his help, the hostages would never have survived.
One riveting scene centered on an Iranian housekeeper that realized who the ambassador’s “guests” really were. When Iranian men came to the gates of the ambassador’s quarters and asked her as a “sister” whether the guests were the American hostages, she replied no. The ambassador’s guests had arrived only two days ago, she said, whereas the sought-after hostages had escape the American embassy weeks earlier.
The rescue, then, depended not only on Mendez, but also on the Canadian ambassador’s risking his well-being, and the housekeeper with a strong, tangible sense of right and wrong.
Both films, then, showed how a relatively small group of people can make the difference between life and death. These individuals do not have to be famous or powerful in a traditional sense. They do, however, have a strong moral sense, coupled with a willingness to live out their convictions and risk their very well-being.
They are a reminder of what is possible, especially in these turbulent times when regional and political hatred threaten to eclipse our common American good. They provide a sense of what is possible when we look within, and then act from there, saving a bit of our shared world from craziness.
By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist