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The Invisible War & How to Survive a Plague

Both are nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Annual Academy Awards

If “The Gatekeepers” is anywhere near as fine as the other four feature documentary nominees I’ve watched in the Oscar category, it’s going to be an extremely tough race to call. With this latest duo(David France’s “How to Survive a Plague” and Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War”)under my belt, I can confirm that the Academy Award contest contains some of the highest all-around quality in a number of years. And these two in particular tackle a couple of very sobering issues: the proliferation of rape in the United States military and the protest movement to bring AIDS-inhibiting drugs to the public in a more precipitous manner. There is a lot of pain and frustration portrayed in each, and both chronicle fights for treatment and awareness. “The Invisible War” in particular is an expose of the sexist underbelly of the armed forces that has now caught the attention of the United States Congress. If it manages to enact change, it confirms(once again)the power of the medium. Google “The Thin Blue Line” to read about how Errol Morris’ incredible 1988 documentary(one of my 10 all-time doc favorites)managed to get wrongly-convicted murderer, and one-time death row inmate, Randall Dale Adams released from life imprisonment. Or look no further back than last year to be reminded how the 3-film “Paradise Lost” series was instrumental in securing the release of the West Memphis Three. As far as “How to Survive a Plague” goes, I’ll add a personal note. I’ve lost friends, co-workers and family members to the AIDS epidemic. “How to Survive a Plague” is an invaluable diary of the efforts of ACT UP(AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG(Treatment Action Group)to positively impact the lives of people living with AIDS. ACT UP demanded better and quicker access to experimental AIDS drugs in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The film presents vast footage of civil disobedience movements on Wall Street(1987), against the FDA(1988), inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York(1989), and the placing of a giant condom over the home of despised(and now deceased)Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina(1991). That last act was orchestrated by activist Peter Staley, who joined ACT UP in 1987, and founded the splinter group TAG in 1992. Staley and other prominent fighters for the cause(Larry Kramer and Mark Harrington among them)are featured prominently throughout the film. Many of the interviewed activists are living proof of their numerous victories in getting certain medicines to the public in an expedited manner. “The Invisible War” contains a roster of rape victims who suffered at the hands of their fellow armed forces members. Tales of vicious assaults and unwanted sexual advances are difficult to listen to. Stories of cover-ups, indifference and mishandled “investigations” will infuriate you, but possibly not surprise you if you are as cynical as me. It’s the type of information that the American military establishment would prefer you didn’t see. The compelling case of Coast Guard member Kori Cioca is shocking—and the inept handling of it is shown to continue to present day. And if you’re thinking that all of the rape subjects interviewed in the film are women—you would be mistaken. No further breakdown and synopsis of these fine examples of documentary filmmaking can possibly live up to the experience of seeing them for yourself. Both are available via Netflix streaming, so hop to it for a look at the darkness and the light of recent U.S. history.    Grades for both:  A-

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