WINNER: TOP 25 LIBERTARIAN FILMS
ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE: BEST PICTURE
AIDS patient Ron Woodroof defies the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to smuggle unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into the U.S. in order to treat fellow victims of HIV. Based on a true story. [Dir: Jean-Marc Vallee/ Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto/ 117 min/ Drama, Biography/ Anti-regulation, Government healthcare, Legalize drugs]
Having your medications controlled by an all-powerful regulatory agency is great, because you can never be too careful. Oh wait you can be too careful, like when you’re dying and the agency won’t allow you have access to experimental meds because…safety first. That was the situation in 1988, when thousands of AIDs victims were being eaten alive by a hellish virus and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) denied them access to life-saving medications.
Enter Ron Woodroof, a blue-collar thrice-married electrician who acquired HIV in a drunken sexcapade with prostitutes. He soon found himself in a hospital, where he was told he had 30 days to live. A renegade by nature, Woodroof didn’t follow orders and patiently wait for a long-shot chance at a double-blind academic study where the odds of survival were low. Instead, he did an end-run around the system, eventually winding up in Mexico in pursuit of treatment. It is there he learned that the anti-AIDS drug being tested in the US – AZT – wasn’t even being used because there were better anti-viral treatments available. AZT, it is alleged in the film, was the initial choice for treatment in the US largely because of a crony capitalist relationship between Big Pharma and the FDA.
Realizing that the anti-virals would help not only himself but others, Woodroof turned criminal entrepreneur, smuggling the drugs into the US and distributing them through a “buyers club.” Much of the film is about the struggles Woodroof went through to keep the club supplied, and the game of cat and mouse he had to play with authorities. The film ends (as did the club) in a court scene, with an idiotic ruling against Woodroof on the basis that no specific right to unapproved drugs could be found in the Constitution, as though the Constitution were supposed to be a list of specific rights. It’s a pity so few judges understand the ninth and tenth amendments.
This is a touching film, and a good telling of Woodroof’s story, though fictionalized for dramatic effect in some respects. It might be added that the film is also a broader tribute to AIDS activists. Woodroof was not the only one who fought to keep the sick and dying alive, at a time when the majestic pace of an indifferent federal bureaucracy offered nothing but legal obstacles.
That said, if you need your heroes to wear a clean shirt and a white hat, this may not be your movie. Ron Woodroof is portrayed as a debauched and cynical two-fisted character. Of course, only a rule-breaker, which Woodroof unquestionably was, would have the guts to defy the system at the risk of imprisonment – and in the circumstance agonized death – in order to save himself and others. It might be added that he did all this while weak from severe illness and alone, having been ostracized by friends following his diagnosis (something that happened to a lot of AIDS victims at the time).
There is something very American about Ron Woodroof, and about this film. Woodroof was a Texas rodeo enthusiast, perhaps as close as you get nowadays to a cowboy. And like a cowboy, he didn’t deal with his problems by submitting patiently to authority, but by fighting for his life and for the lives of others.
Even the story of the film itself is one of scrappy independence. The script was rejected 137 times by Hollywood execs, and nearly given up, when a Texas fertilizer entrepreneur decided to take a gamble on it, financing half of its tiny $4 million budget. It was filmed in just 25 days. When Dallas Buyers Club was finally released, it won three Academy Awards and was nominated as well for Best Picture.
External Reviews of Dallas Buyers Club
“Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific movie with a strong libertarian message about self-help, entrepreneurship, overbearing and even lethal regulation, and social tolerance.”
“A winner of three Academy Awards, the AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club is being hailed as a landmark film for its sympathetic portrayal of gays and transsexuals. But what really makes the film a landmark is how it makes the Food and Drug Administration its villain. The film portrays the FDA as at best slow off the mark to make potentially life-saving drugs available to dying people and at worst as a corrupt organization that is essentially a puppet of the pharmaceutical industry it means to regulate.”
“Its message, though, is so uncompromisingly libertarian-right it could almost have been written by Ayn Rand. This is what happens, it tells us, when government gets too big and when the free market fails.”
How to See It
“In a bi-partisan effort to bring Oscar-winning attention to patients who require additional treatment, Dems and GOPs lobby to pass a possible life-saving legislation…medication to treat AIDS is legal and widely available, but there are many other drugs that people suffering from all kinds of terminal illnesses would like to gain access to but are being denied by an FDA bound to federal guidelines about health and safety. Enter the Goldwater Institute, a think tank devoted to the free market and libertarian principles of its namesake, the GOP’s 1964 presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, and its ‘Right to Try’ bill.”
–The ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ Bill, The Daily Beast, 3/4/14
“The Right to Access Experimental Drugs: Why the FDA Should Not Deprive the Terminally Ill of a Chance to Live,” —William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 16, Issue 3, 2008