About “Dallas Buyers Club”: thoughts from an eyewitness
About Dallas Buyers’ Club:
Outside Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Ron Woodruff as alternative therapies peddler, the film was pretty thin – a response that’s not surprising from one who lived through those times. Screenwriters Melisa Wallick and Craig Borten take as their template the stock 1950s Western plot: Texas renegade confronts bad guys (big government, big bureaucracy), picking up a sidekick (Jared Leto) along the way. Though at first he’s hard-bitten, Woodruff is brought to realize his true heart of gold by the love of an innocent maiden (Jennifer Garner as beautiful woman doctor).
Acting honors should go to Leto, who has the unenviable task of reprising one of the oldest stock figures of Hollywood, the self-destructive drag queen who provides a plot point by dying. I thought we’d left behind that particular stereotype, but evidently not.
Various friends who had seen the film wouldn’t talk about the ending, saying that doing so would spoil it. I can’t imagine what they meant, except that I fear that they thought that the film offered narrative suspense in the form of the hope that Woodruff would beat the diagnosis and survive. If so, that only goes to show how ignorant almost everyone is today of the reality of those times: anyone, everyone who received a full-blown AIDS diagnosis as early as 1986 died.
Even now, even in 2014 Hollywood can only make a film about such a subject through the point of view of an aggressively straight man (why not write it from the point of view of the drag queen?). But the film had a moment where it could have complicated itself: When Woodruff invades the meeting where the bureaucrats’ ally Dr. Sevard is presiding, Sevard calls him a “common drug dealer” and orders him to leave. In fact that is exactly what Woodruff was at that point in the film – dealing drugs of highly suspect provenance and charging premium prices for them, with no exceptions for those unable to pay the price. Had the Dr. Sevard character been played (or more likely, directed) to be more sympathetic and Woodruff less heroic, that moment could have contained all the contradictions of health care under capitalism: Everyone in that room, most especially the pharmaceutical executives, is a common drug dealer, and they are all, including Woodruff, out to make a profit from human suffering.
One friend pointed out that Woodruff is an anti-hero – he’s not presented as having a sympathetic life – but I demur. Though in the film’s asides he’s naughty and brawling and rough-edged as the stock Western template requires, at every critical point he’s decisive, independent, risk-taking, entrepreneurial – all the Reagan-era Ayn Rand / John Wayne values. In case we miss the point, near the film’s end he receives a standing ovation.
I knew in advance that the film would impose an orderly plot on the chaos and agony of a desperate time – it’s a Hollywood film, after all. But – then and now – when thinking of the FDA bureaucrats, I cannot let go of the legacies of the likes of Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, who fought for federal regulation of industries that were killing people in their blind pursuit of profits. (The contamination of West Virginia rivers with toxic chemicals offers a fine contemporary example of the consequences of relaxed and underfunded government regulation.) With all the benefits of hindsight, the film suggests that it was possible to have some clarity around these various drugs, and it strongly implies that Woodruff’s alternative mix (peptide-T, interferon, ddc) kept him alive.
There’s little evidence to support the view that the mix he was dealing helped anyone. That AZT was prescribed in what we now recognize as lethal dosages is not in doubt, but the film suggests that this was done purely to make a profit for the drug companies. In fact everyone was desperate and AZT offered the first glimmer of something that might work, and if a little worked, then a lot should work better, right?
The big pharma executives and their investors are as greedy now as then and I’m all in favor of any story that makes them out to be villains. But for everybody else involved, the story was a lot more complicated, in a way that the film oversimplifies. The real villain was not the bureaucrats who, however unimaginatively, were doing their assigned job of policing drug research and production. The true villain was President Ronald Reagan, who did not mention the disease until long after it was established and spreading, and whose slowness to pour serious research money into its causes and potential cures delayed our understanding of the virus, with consequences of the first magnitude for the infected.