These are just some of the words that come to mind when trying to describe how I felt while watching The Normal Heart, airing on May 25 at 9 PM on HBO.
Brought to television and starring some pretty big Hollywood hitters, this film tells the story of the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York when gay men were suddenly coming down with a mysterious disease that was, as one character puts it, killing of a generation.
Written by Larry Kramer as a semi-autobiographical play in 1984 and premiering on Broadway in 1985, these issues were still fresh and ongoing. President Ronald Regan hadn’t even publicly said the word AIDS when Kramer began writing this. National research funding was very limited, and thousands of people were dying every year from something that was killing off an entire generation of young men.
Starting in 1981, The Normal Heart, opens on a carefree Memorial Day weekend trip to Fire Island. Ned Weeks (the Kramer figure, played by Mark Ruffalo) joins his friends for partying and having a good time, but that carefree enjoyment soon turns to tragedy when one of their friends, Craig (Jonathan Groff) mysteriously collapses on the beach in a coughing fit. The joy turns to concern for this individual and this is the moment the film turns into a horror story. No one yet quite understands the more global problem that this seemingly isolated event represents. Until this point the “only” hurdle gay men had to face was social and political disparagement, little did they know they would be faced with something far more sinister.
This initial scene lays the groundwork and foreshadows much of the narrative from that point on. In an era where until that point, love was free from fear and the gay community was just starting to mainstream, comes a danger that lurks underneath that carefree attitude. Not only their lifestyles were marginalized by society, but their sex lives now had real life and death consequences.
As the story goes on, Ned observes more and more of his peers falling ill and dying, including his lover Felix (Matt Bomer, who proves he’s more than steely blue eyes and devilishly good looks in one of the film’s strongest performances). He endures the lack of respect and acknowledgement from leading political figures like Ed Koch and family members like his brother, Ben (Alfred Molina). He finds one ally in Dr. Emma Brookner (an unusually dowdy Julia Roberts), a polio stricken doctor who has been in the front lines of the burgeoning epidemic as she has treated hundreds of dying men to this mysterious illness.
What is so painful for Ned, and in turn for modern audiences watching in 2014, there doesn't seem to more public outrage on the hundreds and thousands of deaths. This disease didn't have a name yet, it was still referred to as Gay Cancer, as it tore through New York and the US. Ned insists on being that voice of outrage – despite the resistance he gets from his family members and friends. He, along with a few friends, found The Gay Men’s Health Crisis as a nonprofit to spread the word about AIDS awareness. Even within the group there’s a schism over how they should plead their case. Ned is a loud, sharp voice who wants to scream and yell to get heard, but there’s also the closeted Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch, having shed all of his Tim Riggins persona) and Tommy Boatwright (a strong Jim Parsons) feel like they’ll catch more flies with honey. Nevertheless, despite the differing ways they feel will be most effective in how to get people’s attention, the film, as did the play before it, capture the real sense confusion and urgency of action at this time. They didn’t know what to do, but they knew something must be done.
What is so fascinating about this story is how little people under the age of 35 actually know what went on in those early days. Despite films like Philadelphia and And the Band Played On, there has been limited public and widespread presence to this issue of the early days in our popular culture, and unfortunately without the knowledge of our past, we are destined to relive it. In one impassioned plea to Felix, Ned decries what would have happened if the Jews in America and in Europe had spoken up and out against the Nazis. Moreover, Emma states that “People once died from Polio” to say that this too could be curable, if people paid attention to it. In these instances, Ned and Emma are not only the voices of their generation and "his people," but he’s also the voice of future generations who will need their voices heard on their important issues. Above all else, The Normal Heart is a warning of what happens when people don’t stand up to social justice issues - either for causes that directly effect them or for injustices they see going on in the world. This happens to be a great film with stellar acting and impressive direction, but it’s most important element is it’s truth.
The truth is that today the big fight is about gay marriage and equal rights which is a huge step from 30 years ago when politicians wouldn't even recognize the gay community of deserving equal health care. The fight for equal rights for this minority group has evolved, but it still continues. In fact, the fight for equality for all minority groups continuities and the importance of The Normal Heart is important not only to know the history of this historic fight, but as a lesson for the future on how we treat people in our societies and to ask ourselves, what side of history do we really want to be on? And, if the outrage isn't there and you think it should be, sometimes, in order to win a war, you have to be willing to start one.