So far, business is good for Dallas Buyers Club. The film sports a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, pundits now consider Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto locks for Oscar nominations, and the box-office receipts have been high for its limited release.
But these accolades come with a caveat: Many commentators have criticized the film for its use of a “straight savior” character to convey the realities of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. While it was gay people who were hit the hardest by the disease, and the country’s slow reaction to the epidemic was fueled at least in part by widespread homophobia, Buyers Club’s protagonist is a homophobic, chauvinistic Texan who contracts the virus through sex with a woman. When he learns that the Food and Drug Administration is running clinical trials on AZT, an ineffective drug with terrible side effects while better medication remains unapproved for use, he begins illegally importing the good stuff from Mexico and selling it to the gay community in Dallas.
The film is based on a true story. But the problem, perhaps best voiced by John Oursler at Sound and Sight, is that “Hollywood’s vision of AIDS is one where educated, white, and gay men become sick and where an altruistic, or entrepreneurial, straight man can swoop in and save the day if they so desire.”
For those audience members who identify with the reactionary Woodruff, his journey towards tolerance may have an impact on their thinking—but they are also unlikely to go out of their way to see the film. For everyone else, it feels decades too late: Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia more effectively raised awareness about the plight of the AIDS afflicted back in 1993, and today’s most at-risk population for the disease are young people of color.
Yet set AIDS aside, and the film feels right on time. Just as Demme used a courtroom genre as a Trojan Horse to educate mainstream America about AIDS and homosexuality, Dallas Buyers Club uses an AIDS drama to tell a story of government corruption and a broken medical system—of one man versus The Man—that plays to 2013 sensibilities. It all fits with the current moment, when approval ratings of Congress are at a record low and conservatives are seething over the intrusion of the federal government into our healthcare system.
Here is how it goes for Woodruff: Almost as soon as he starts illegally selling the drugs, local AIDS and HIV patients quickly abandon the FDA-sponsored clinical trials for AZT taking place in local hospitals. Instead, they go to Woodruff for treatment. A local physician alerts the FDA, which sets about trying to shut Woodruff down using every federal regulatory tool at their disposal. The feds arrest him, sue him, and audit him, but Woodruff is resolute. He keeps his business running, and he keeps his patients alive much longer than AZT—and by association, the government itself—would have. Individual liberty succeeds where the federal government has failed.
And so it is that the true villain in Dallas Buyers Club is not the virus that destroys Woodruff’s body or even his homophobic friends who ostracize him as soon as they learn he is infected. No, the real bad guys here are the FDA, with their cozy, corrupt relationship to the pharmaceutical industry, and our medical system as a whole, personified by a greedy local doctor. These institutions are not discriminating against Woodruff because he's gay (he isn't), and they are not failing in their duties because of any specific Reagan administration policy (Reagan, in fact, is not mentioned in the film). Instead, the filmmakers depict the FDA as an inherently corrupt and failed bureaucracy that seems designed to stymie progress and prevent patients from getting the care they need. It's an indictment of the very idea of that a centralized institution like the FDA can solve a crisis as large and as deadly as AIDS.
Many advocates, of course, do believe the FDA to have been complicit in prolonging AIDS’ mass casualties. But its failings were at least in part due to the political context of the time, and change only came through widespread, sustained, collective action. The astonishing 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague lays all of this out: the Reagan and Bush administration’s slowness on the issue, and how much tireless, daring, coordinated work it took on the part of the afflicted to change government and society. Dallas Buyers Club ignores the fact of who was in office, and it relegates the AIDS activists to a few seconds of screen time on a television set that Woodruff glances at and then ignores. Instead, a character type as old and conventional as Hollywood itself—one man with nothing to lose—saves the day.
What this adds up to is a film more conservative than even its most outspoken liberal critics have suggested. The distributors of Dallas Buyers Club may in fact be missing a major opportunity by opening the film in limited release in urban areas. With Obamacare still fresh on their minds, today's Tea Party members could likely find a lot they would agree with in the film's rejection of government interference in our health care system. That's not what you expect in an AIDS drama.