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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. In the new movie "Dallas Buyers Club," actor Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, an unlikely AIDS activist. It's based on a true story. In the 1980s, Woodroof fought the medical establishment over a drug approval process that he thought was too cautious and amounted to a death sentence for people with AIDS.

In a moment, NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more on the real Ron Woodroof, but first, Bob Mondello reviews the movie.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Texas good ol' boy Ron Woodroof is a player: drugs, alcohol, women, gambling. As the film starts, he's at a rodeo, snorting cocaine, with a fistful of bets, as he gets it on with two prostitutes, not a healthy lifestyle, one that's left him gaunt, weak, coughing.

With hindsight, what's ailing him seems obvious now. Back in 1986, it didn't, until doctors did a blood test.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DALLAS BUYERS CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Mr. Woodroof, you've tested positive for HIV. Have you ever used intravenous drugs? Have you ever engaged in homosexual conduct?

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Ron Woodroof) Homo. Did you say homo? You made a mistake. That ain't me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Woodroof, we estimate you have 30 days left.

MONDELLO: Ron Woodroof won't accept that. He offers to pay cash for experimental drugs, but until the Food and Drug Administration approves a drug therapy, you can't just buy it in this country. So he heads south of the border and discovers other things the FDA hasn't approved: proteins, vitamins. Realizing folks in the U.S. are desperate, the hustler in him starts hustling.

He fills the trunk of his car with pills to bring back, again and again, far too many for his own use, as border agents start to notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DALLAS BUYERS CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Walker, Dorsett, Blount, Newsome, Jeffcoat, these are patients?

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) They're also the names of players on the Dallas Cowboys.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) That's a hell of a coincidence, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Isn't this a little ridiculous?

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) You said it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Can you prove these are patients?

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) Can you prove they're not?

MONDELLO: Now importing drugs for sale is a federal offense. But the AIDS community came up with a workaround: a club. Pay a monthly membership fee and get free drugs. Woodroof's club soon has people lining up, which alarms the medical establishment, including a doctor who'd caught his eye when he was diagnosed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DALLAS BUYERS CLUB")

JENNIFER GARNER: (As Dr. Eve Saks) This is my patient. Are you treating these people?

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) They're treating themselves.

GARNER: (As Saks) With what?

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) Vitamins, peptide T, DDC, anything but that poison you're hawking. Say, you ever wear any color? Seems like every time I see you, all I see is white, white coat, white shoes.

GARNER: (As Saks) I am telling my patients to stay away from here.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) Why?

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

GARNER: (As Saks) Excuse me.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) Say, you want to grab a steak sometime? I know it's red.

MONDELLO: Matthew McConaughey's flirty drawl and rowdy persona have never been put to better dramatic use than they are in "Dallas Buyers Club." His commitment to playing this jerk - and in the movie he is a jerk, though a seductive one - is almost scary. McConaughey lost 38 pounds to look properly emaciated. And Jared Leto did much the same to play a woman who wasn't born a woman, and who's not cowed by Woodroof's homophobia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DALLAS BUYERS CLUB")

JARED LETO: (As Rayon) I've been looking for you, Lone Star.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Woodroof) Listen, Tinkerbell, unless you got more cash or new clients, I'm busy.

LETO: (As Rayon) You don't deserve our money.

MONDELLO: The filmmakers know they're pushing buttons in an era when gays, big pharma and big government all resonate differently than they did in 1986. And they do not try to outfit their story with false uplift or make it about a community coming together. "Dallas Buyers Club" is just about a selfish boor who arguably deserves a pass from posterity because while looking out for number one, he paved the way for change for everyone else. I'm Bob Mondello.

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