For those of us who lived through the 80s paranoia over HIV and AIDS, this movies reopens a festering wound in America’s soul. Who remembers Ryan White, stigmatized and kept out of school because he got a tainted blood transfusion? Who remembers when hysteria even went so far as to having officials suggesting that merely touching people with AIDS could give you the disease, and for a while professional sports figures were prepared to say they would not play with someone who had AIDS? Who remembers Magic Johnson’s public confession and confrontation of the issue?
Matthew McConaughey’s new star turn brings back some pretty sad and depressing memories. It is also a cautionary tale about the FDA, drug companies, and the way the law sometimes gets in the way of curing terminal illnesses. This movie is based on an actual story about one Ron Woodroof who contracted AIDS, possibly through intravenous drug use, possibly through illicit sex, and his heroic struggle to find a cure for the disease, even if necessary by illegal means and by the use of illegal drugs.
This movie and the acting of McConaughey have already gotten numerous nominations for awards during this season, and worthy of some mention is also Jennifer Garner, who plays the compassionate doctor in the film. Matthew and Jennifer themselves make the film worth watching. But the story itself is a poignant one as well, about the human struggle to survive, and find a way to go on living.
Set in 1986-92 we are at the period when the AIDS epidemic is in full swing, and America is waking up to a new nightmare about diseases that are largely transmitted by immoral sexual conduct of one sort or another. The desperation to find a cure and quickly is palpable in the film, and the very extraordinary measures that Woodroof takes to further the research, and the trying of promising solutions that at least alleviate the symptoms and complications of the disease are must see viewing.
What also makes this film charged with energy is that Woodroof is a bull-riding cowboy and a full participant in the macho culture of Texas. Homophobia meets homophilia in Dallas in the 80s, and it often gets ugly. Ron himself has to overcome his repulsion for those he calls ‘faggots’ and somehow repulsion is replaced with compassion for the plight of those with AIDS, as he becomes one of them. A common plight leads to uncommon humanity overcoming ones fears and revulsion.
Indeed, Ron ends up partnering with a gay man to run the Dallas Buyers club. The essential premise of the club is that if you subscribe to the club, you get your palliative medicines for free. That way, Ron could not be accused of illegal sale of drugs.
This is an adults only movie on a very adult theme, with some pretty raw scenes along the way, not just of bare and decaying human flesh, but of raw emotions as one after another person stares down death that comes well before ones ‘three score years and ten’. Given 30 days to live in 1987, Ron lives until 1992, flying around the world to get the drugs necessary to help himself and others. But in the end, the grim reaper comes calling too soon. Death finally defeats even remarkable human efforts and ingenuity.
This movie raises many of the right ethical questions about the medical and pharmaceutical industry and the FDA. It also raises questions about how one should respond to people whose behavior leads to self-inflicted diseases, some of them lethal. What should compassion look like when the behavior which produced the problem should not be condoned? Not many movies probe these sort of questions as well as this one does.