A decade ago, when his documentary “How to Survive a Plague” rode a wave of festival acclaim to an Oscar nomination, journalist-turned-filmmaker David France probably didn’t imagine that a similarly titled quasi-sequel was in the cards. A superb overview of the early years of HIV-AIDS activism in the face of political indifference and ineptitude — ultimately leading to game-changing medication and pharmaceutical policy change — that film has given France a solid grounding for another feature-length study of very different if somewhat comparable global health crisis, centered on the COVID-19 pandemic and the extraordinarily accelerated scientific race for a solution.
Researched and assembled with his characteristic intelligence and thoroughness, “How to Survive a Pandemic” serves as both a valuable potted history of the last two years of medical tumult and relief, and a critical progress report marking work yet to be done. Hardly the first high-profile documentary on the pandemic, but the most substantial yet to focus specifically on the trajectory of the vaccine, France’s film is assured a receptive audience when it bows on HBO next week, following docfest premiere slots in Thessaloniki and Copenhagen. (More so, perhaps, than COVID-themed docs released in earlier chapters of the pandemic’s ongoing narrative, when there was less light at the end of the tunnel.)
Striking a balanced note of hopefulness and caution, “How to Survive a Pandemic” differs significantly from “How to Survive a Plague” in the largely present-tense nature of its investigation: Whereas the latter film had years of hindsight through which to process grief and evaluate systemic failures and breakthroughs, “Pandemic” has a rawness suited to its evolving moment, leaving many questions open even as it celebrates certain answers. One wouldn’t be surprised to see a follow-up in years to come.
To anchor a study that ranges far and wide, gradually expanding its purview beyond American borders to discuss First and Third World disparity in vaccine access, France centers renowned California-based science writer Jon Cohen as a kind of journalistic proxy. A specialist in epidemic coverage, noted for his expertise in global health relating to HIV-AIDS, he embarks on a globe-trotting vaccine research mission that gives these discursive proceedings a spine, and the film benefits not just from his genial, inquisitive presence but his formidable contacts book: This is someone who can quiz Dr. Anthony Fauci over a friendly glass of wine, to pleasingly candid effect.
Structurally, the doc is presented in two halves, focused respectively on vaccine development and rollout — which also break down, more or less, into the Trump and Biden administrations, with an attendant shift in mood and outlook. “We’re fucked on so many levels,” Cohen despairs near the outset, when the vaccine is still predicted to be a year away. The film revisits the tension between politicians and scientists that followed the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed initiative, which aimed to hasten the vaccine development process to a degree that concerned some experts. Oncologist Dr. Peter Marks, a research director at the FDA, is frank in repeated interviews about the political point-scoring at play, Fauci declares himself the only person telling Trump what he doesn’t want to hear, while even Warp Speed head Moncef Slaoui, reflecting drolly but as diplomatically as possible on the former President’s input, closes on a plea to the “next pandemic” not to be in an election year.
The various trials and approvals of the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines lend “How to Survive a Pandemic” staggered surges of catharsis and optimism, though as the film’s second half takes on the vast international undertaking of distributing the jab, new problems and conflicts present themselves. Having hitherto been predominantly American in its coverage — with a digression into the catastrophic effects of the pandemic in Brazil, under the science-denying leadership of Jair Bolsonaro — France’s study turns more global.
A particular focus on the devastatingly slow, stalled rollout of the vaccine in South Africa exemplifies what one expert terms the “catastrophic moral failure” of private pharmaceutical companies and privileged national governments to bring the vaccine in adequate numbers to under-developed nations, as World Health Organization president Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advances the cause of vaccine equity. A spiky and unyielding interviewee, Cohen journeys to the Serum Institute of India to challenge CEO Adar Poonawalla on the Indian government’s controversial export ban on vaccines: “National interest supersedes contractual obligations,” comes the cagey reply.
Closer to home, the film addresses the issue of vaccine hesitancy via the herculean efforts of Paul Abernathy, a priest serving a poor, mostly Black community of Pittsburgh, to talk his older parishioners through their anti-authoritarian skepticism over the vaccine and persuade them to take it — with mixed but ultimately heartening results.
Somewhat surprisingly, there’s comparatively little mention of the more militant antivaxx movement that has held back a significant portion of America’s population from getting one potentially life-saving injection: Abernathy shrugs it off in passing as “that QAnon stuff we’re not into,” and perhaps France agrees that’s all the discussion it merits. Smart, humane and gripping even as it rakes over events all too fresh in our memories, “How to Survive a Pandemic” ends with plenty yet to be discussed and explored: It provides a road map to survival, but doesn’t suggest we’ve all made it just yet.