In the Fog of War
A New Film, Dallas Buyers Club, Revisits One Man’s Small Battle for Treatment Access in the First Decade of the Pandemic
by Mark Rebernik
A plague was engulfing the nation. As the Cold War was ending and the spectre of fiery mass annihilation waned, a new threat emerged that picked off its victims one by one. Spawned in Africa, a new virus had invaded America’s coastal cities and was moving inexorably toward its heartland.
It’s first victims appeared to be mostly gay men. For them, it was a fearful time, when a small dark spot on the skin or a suspicious cough meant the start of a wretched physical decline and inevitable death. With cold piety, believers in a vengeful God saw this plague as clear evidence that God had rendered harsh judgment upon those who had violated His moral laws. Even kind and compassionate people were terrified, for even the so-called experts were unsure about the virus’s mode of transmission.
Against this backdrop of fear, loathing, and uncertainty, the new film, Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Features), starring Matthew McConaughey, revisits those early years of the AIDS epidemic. Based on true events, it is an exceptional film, a powerful and stirring achievement. Losing over forty pounds for the role, McConaughey is nearly unrecognizable as Ron Woodroof, a Texas good ol’ boy. An electrician and part-time rodeo cowboy, Woodroof is a lustful, hard drinking homophobe.
Despite his swagger and bluster, it’s clear that Woodroof is not well. Pale and gaunt, he’s rushed to the hospital after he collapses. There, the doctors give him his death sentence: He has (what was then called) full-blown AIDS, he has virtually no immune system, and he has thirty days to live. The year is 1985 and there’s no cure, no effective treatment, and no hope. Thus begins Woodroof’s gradual transformation from a narrow-minded redneck to a reluctant activist.
Instead of just counting down the days to his death, Woodroof bribes a hospital orderly to obtain AZT, then an unapproved drug in clinical trials. His search for a less toxic treatment leads him to a Mexican clinic which offers a holistic alternative. Now an outcast with no job and abandoned by his friends, he hits upon a scheme to make money: selling unapproved drugs and supplements to other desperate AIDS patients.
Woodroof enlists the aid of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual whom he had met during his hospital stay. Leto’s performance has such depth and poignancy that it places him, along with McConaughey, in the pantheon of great American film actors. These two desperate souls form an uneasy partnership. Covert street sales lead to the establishment of a buyer’s club to import and distribute drugs and supplements to the Dallas AIDS community.
Soon, the buyer’s club is in the crosshairs of the FDA and FBI. From their perspective, Woodroof is a snake oil salesman, selling hope in a bottle. After all, there are established protocols. In addition, AZT, touted by its manufacturer as the best available treatment, despite its toxicity, is about to receive FDA approval.
It would be too easy, too simplistic to label the central players in this drama as completely good or completely evil. Woodroof, for one, is hardly a likeable character. Indeed, he never intended to be anyone’s hero. He wanted to save his skin and initially make a few bucks on the side. The FDA, that bureaucratic behemoth, was responding to the crisis with their familiar tools and time-tested practices. Then we have the drug makers. Their only motivation is profit, right? The viewers are free to draw their own conclusions. But whatever motives one ascribes to them, they ultimately developed lifesaving antiretroviral medication that continues to save millions of lives.
Dallas Buyers Club presents a compelling look back in time at an unprecedented medical disaster. The central players—the government, the drug manufacturers, and the desperately ill—were operating without a compass. Fear, hopelessness, and recriminations created a toxic morass that threatened to manacle any effective thoughtful response to the crisis.
Nearly three decades now separate us from those anguished days. AZT, then a symbol of all that was wrong with the medical establishment, is still prescribed, albeit in lower doses, as part of the cocktail treatment. The FDA, responding to an intense and protracted public outcry, finally acknowledged the ineffectiveness of their outdated protocols and instituted fast track to speed up the approval process for lifesaving drugs. The drug makers continue to develop medications to attack the virus at all stages of its life cycle. Costly and not without side effects, they’ve made AIDS a treatable illness, at least for those with access to adequate medical care. And finally, Woodroof, who was given only thirty days to live, survived for over 2,000 days.
Dallas Buyers Club is a provocative film, touching deep chords of emotions. Survivors of the early plague years will likely experience a deep sense of gratitude that they were spared an early death. For those too young to have lived through those tumultuous times, the film will, hopefully, shatter their complacency and serve as a warning. HIV survives, finding new hosts among the reckless and unwary.
Mark Rebernik is a writer, actor, and lawyer and lives in Los Angeles.