"Dallas Buyers Club, film by Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013
No one wants to remember the HIV/AIDs epidemic – the Ebola of the 1980s in the U.S. Which is why it seems to have taken 30 years for a film indicting the government FDA, Big Pharma and the compliant U.S. legal system for dragging its feet on cures or symptomatic alleviation for AIDS patients. This film is it. Basically, the Reagan government didn’t care if gay people died. So they did.
It is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, a supposedly hard-drinking, hard-fucking Texas electrician, who had to question his own homophobia and that of those around him to extend his life after getting AIDs. (A flashback shows some gay sex, perhaps many years earlier in 1981.) The film Woodruff lost his rodeo friends and instead becomes allies with a cross-dressing gay man, Rayon, who had AIDs too, who he invited to become his first business partner. Woodruff always has an eye for the buck, but he also relentlessly tried to stay alive. The corporate doctor had given him 30 days to ‘get his affairs in order.’ Instead he learned everything he could about the disease. He had paid a Latino janitor to steal AZT for him, as it was only available as a ‘trial’ drug at that point – sugar pills being given to some of the human guinea pigs. When the AZT ran out, the Latino gave him the address of a doctor in Mexico. And saved his life for awhile.
Woodruff went to Mexico in desperation and meets a ‘barred’ physician, Dr. Vass, a grey-haired hippie doctor. Vass prescribes vitamins, Compound Q, ddC, an antiviral, and the protein “Peptide T.” None were yet approved by the FDA in the U.S. to deal with HIV. Eventually he realizes with Dr. Vass’ help that AZT in the high doses being prescribed actually did not work, and could instead harm people. Woodruff got better and 3 months later, decided to start his business, the “Dallas Buyers’ Club.” For $400 a month, people could get as much of his ‘drugs’ as they needed. Dozens of HIV/AIDs patients line up outside his apartment every day. To do this, he has to smuggle the drugs into the U.S. from Mexico and contend with the FDA, who want to shut him down. He goes to Israel, Europe and Japan to get non-FDA-approved drugs, the latter alpha Interferon. He eventually convinces a sympathetic doctor at the local hospital that his treatments should be allowed, and that AZT doses were too high. He later sued the FDA in 1987 when they blocked the importation of the Peptide protein into the U.S. While the judge is sympathetic, the ‘law’ is against the Club, and he ruled against Woodruff. Later, only Woodruff was allowed the protein.
The FDA had made a deal with GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of AZT, and evidently no other drugs could be used to treat AIDs, and no other dosages prescribed. Then, as now, the FDA was a complete captive of the industry it regulated. However, AZT is effective at lower doses as part of a full therapy – unlike Ron’s claims.
The ‘Washington Post’ claimed that all the drugs Woodruff smuggled into the U.S. were ‘useless,’ including Peptide T. This, of course, is the Washington Post, the #3 top ruling class paper in the country. Others contend Peptide T has some beneficial effects for AIDs patients. Whatever the exact detail on the drugs smuggled in by Woodruff, it doesn’t change the basic dialectic that the government moved slowly on AIDs. Woodruff lived 7 years, not 30 days, even riding a bull in a rodeo one more time, according to this film. He stopped using cocaine and started to eat non-processed food. As he is played here, he was a monument to a non-passive approach to fatal diseases.
Critics have pointed out that the gay movement is invisible in this film. Here it took an aggressive red-neck to help all those poor helpless gays! Woodruff does mention he got the idea of a ‘buyers club’ from another city. However, no national gay movement, no ACT-Up, no protests. No nothing. Just one individual hero, a typical Hollywood proposition, just like the Mandela film. (See review of ‘Mandela,’ below.)
Say what you will about the obnoxious Mathew McConaughey, he’s a good actor, though he usually plays the same character, which is probably himself. In this one he portrays an emaciated HIV victim, losing 47 pounds for the film. Just doing a film about AIDs had to make a dent in his macho. Even as a possible bi-sexual, McConaughey has to ‘kick ass’ numerous times - but this is a Hollywood film, and his macho has to be preserved somehow. The real Woodruff was not like that.
McConaughey made a dreadful 2013 acceptance speech after receiving the Best Actor award for this film for playing Woodruff. In that speech he thanked God and himself for winning. He also reprized a line from his first film, ‘Dazed and Confused - ‘alright, alright, alright!’ - which I almost heard him mutter again in this film too. McConaughey portrays mostly working-class rebels, which is a good job to have. The film before this, “Mud,” is a reprise of the Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and runaway Jim story – McConaughey playing a white Jim in modern times named ‘Mud.’
Truths normally takes years to come out, especially in the U.S. Waiting 30 years for a mainstream movie on the AIDs/HIV crisis that is critical of the government seems normal. It is because film makers and those who fund these films will not take political risks. Just as MLK was hated in the 1960s, and a target of government spying and ultimately murder, but now lionized. Just as Mandela was called a terrorist, he is now a ‘saint.’ ‘Time heals all wounds’ - because the reactionary initial response of government or corporations cannot be challenged until the real-time political impact has been reduced to almost nothing.
August 25, 2014