'United in Anger': Documentary explores history of AIDS fight ★★★

'United in Anger: A History of ACT UP'

'United in Anger: A History of ACT UP' (November 29, 2012)

We've arrived at a rich and instructive political moment. The president and his adversaries continue to negotiate an uneasy driving lesson to avoid plunging off the fiscal cliff while saving face. Moviegoers are turning out in heartening numbers for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," which sacrifices chronological breadth (the film covers only a few months in the life of the 16th president) for a terrifically observed examination of Lincoln's political wiles, and how they were consistently underestimated by those who liked slavery just the way it was.

Now comes "United in Anger: A History of ACT UP," showing this weekend (12:30 p.m. Saturday only) at the Siskel Film Center downtown. It is a detailed account of the formation, effectiveness and influence of the key AIDS activism organization. Jim Hubbard's documentary is being presented in observance of World AIDS Day, and like the recent documentary "How to Survive a Plague," it focuses tightly on the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known by its punchy acronym.

There's considerable overlap in the film with "How to Survive a Plague," including some shared archival footage from the worst of the AIDS plague years. But even if Hubbard's film lacks the seasoning of the earlier one, its rewards include the serious attention paid to the AIDS activist movement's dovetailing with the women's movement.

ACT UP, whose most visible founder was playwright Larry Kramer, began in 1987, by which time AIDS had taken some 40,000 lives.

The group's various and inventive protests effected serious and life-saving change, from leaning on the Food and Drug Administration to speed up drug approval to persuading the manufacturer of the early AIDS drug AZT, Burroughs Wellcome, to lower the prohibitive price of treatment by 20 percent.

Through recent on-camera interviews with key ACT UP activists and through a wealth of home movies taken before the cellphone camera era, we learn just how many subgroups there were within ACT UP, each with an angle to play, and to play the media for the greater good.

There's not a political action group, left, right or center, that couldn't learn about practical grass-roots organization from watching this chronicle of ACT UP and how a largely unpoliticized group (at least at first) got its act together.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'United in Anger: A History of ACT UP' -- 3 stars
No MPAA rating
(some language)
Running time: 1:33
Screens: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Siskel Film Center

CHICAGO

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