Two years on from Welcome to Chechnya, David France returns with another rip-roaring take on urgent real-world events with How To Survive A Pandemic, an on-the-ground, in-the-rooms account of the first two years of COVID-19 and the race to produce a vaccine; or what France refers to as our “route out.” With dedicated coverage (he began shooting as soon as two weeks into lockdown) and remarkable insider sources, France has constructed a film he hopes will prove definitive of its time in years to come.

It’s as rigorous as it is selective. France sets a clear plan of action: to examine the greatest global, communal, medical achievement ever. And he sticks to it. It’s not on the same level as Chechnya and all that film’s radical effects and gripping, heart-wrenching urgency, but France (who spent years in long-form reporting) has a knack for bringing real propulsion and emotion to his stories. The most moving moment in How to Survive a Pandemic tellingly concerns no more than a pediatrician on a Zoom call with, of all people, the FDA.

France’s opening shot of a leafy Washington D.C. street outside the house of Dr. Peter Marx is as quaint and unassuming as Marx himself, eccentric head of the FDA whose surname must have caused some folks no shortage of consternation. France films him in his lockdown HQ: a table in his basement, with a giant teddy bear, and four cans of Irish oatmeal on which he perches his modest laptop for video chats. We watch as he places a call to General Gustave F. Perna to tell him the first vaccine has been FDA-approved. “Sorry you had to go through all that political crap,” the general responds, as if he knows he’s in a movie. How’s that for a scoop?

This is something France’s film offers that presumably no other ever will, giving weight to his claims of it potentially being definitive, in some sense. He gets a camera in the room of the Pfizer C.E.O. when they get the green light and pop the champagne. There is also a candid 1-1 with Fauci himself, shot head-on, the doctor chilling on his deck in the evening, sipping a beer and wearing a hoody. Adrian Hill, one of the leaders of the research team in Oxford that produced AstraZeneca, also features as the recurring hubristic foil (Ireland is better represented by the Fermanagh-born Margaret Keenan, of course.) The protagonist is Jon Cohen, a senior correspondent with Science magazine, a very impressive old-school reporter type, who plays piano and surfs; and who wouldn’t have looked out of place working alongside Clark Johnson’s Augustus Haynes in the fifth season of The Wire.

It’s through him that we hear the Fauci interview. It’s clear they were once sparring partners as Cohen clashed with Fauci at various times during the AIDS/HIV epidemic, which France also reported on; this film’s title is derived from How to Survive a Plague, France’s earlier film on that other awful time. France and Cohen travel to Geneva to talk with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the W.H.O. It’s very much a film about impressive, high level people doing their jobs really well (a community pastor in a primarily Black U.S. neighborhood and an ambulance driver balance things out with their relatively ground-level accounts.) It is also about a certain someone not doing their job well at all: “Please, next pandemic virus,” Operation Warp Speed head Moncef Slaoui jokes / begs, “please do not come during an election year.”

It’s compelling viewing, if a bit uneasy—not just for the flashbacks to those early COVID days of respiratory machines and people in HAZMAT suits, or the film’s second half, which covers the lack of egalitarianism in the vaccine rollout, and how those decisions ravaged non-Western countries and accelerated the rise in variants. Even in a dramatized Hollywood take, France’s choice of score would be pushing it a bit. The use of a body-count ticker between sequences, no doubt an effective tool, can feel similarly crude. Strangest of all, the people at Pfizer and J&J could hardly have wished for a more sweeping account. There is mention of the eye-watering profits made, but these companies are left looking largely benevolent. France is choosing his battles here; with two years of utter chaos to cover in less than two hours of movie, you can hardly blame him.

How To Survive a Pandemic premiered at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and arrives on HBOX Max on March 29.

Grade: B-

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