Rating: 4 out of 5
Typically, my Sunday nights are spent engrossed by “Game of Thrones” and “Silicon Valley,” but this week HBO had other plans for me. When I heard that Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, and Jim Parsons were starring in “The Normal Heart,” I was intrigued despite its heartbreaking subject matter.
The film is based on the 1985 play by Larry Kramer, an autobiographical work chronicling Kramer’s activism in New York City during the AIDS crisis. Ruffalo plays the Kramer-esque character Ned Weeks who founds the Gay Men’s Health Crisis after several close friends become victims to what was called the “gay cancer.”
However, Ned quickly becomes embroiled in a series of fights: one with his older brother who does not accept his homosexuality, one with an apathetic society in which the government, media, and straight culture are ignoring this epidemic, and one with his own peers who fear that his aggressive, confrontational personality will jeopardize their activist efforts.
Fortunately, Ned finds support in Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a survivor of polio and one of the few physicians willing to study this disease. He also falls in love with NYT reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a relationship that is put to the test when Felix learns that he is infected.
By end of the story’s timeline in 1984, 7,239 cases of AIDS and 5,596 deaths were reported. Twenty years later in 2004, those numbers climbed to 940,000 cases and 529,113 deaths. The CDC reports that today over 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV, and 50,000 people are newly infected every year.
Obviously, this movie is a tear-jerker. I had not seen a story surrounding the AIDS crisis since the 2003 HBO miniseries, “Angels in America.” In both, I applaud the network for detailing the disease honestly and without judgment. Nothing is sugar-coated as you watch the decline of these men suffering from sores, incontinence, and massive weight loss.
More tragic than the physical effects of AIDS is the feeling that everyone has abandoned and neglected you for simply loving the same sex. Although we know now that AIDS can infect anyone, not just gay men, much of the stigma and discrimination still remains. Jim Parsons’ character put it well at yet another friend’s funeral:
“Why are they letting us die? Why is no one helping us? And here’s the truth. Here’s the answer: they just don’t like us.”
The only silver lining to “The Normal Heart” was that it seemed slightly out-of-place given how much progress has been made regarding LGBT rights. AIDS is not the death sentence that it once was, as treatments have drastically increased lifespans. And although we still have a long way to go to combat homophobia and bigotry, it’s no longer controversial when a film about AIDS is produced.
I wrote this review because the movie has literary origins, but it’s also extremely relevant on Memorial Day. In one scene, Ned discusses why it is so important to teach gay history:
“Did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who’s responsible for winning World War II? His name’s Alan Turing and he cracked the Germans’ Enigma code. After the war was over, he committed suicide because he was so haunted for being gay. Why don’t they teach any of that in schools? A gay man is responsible for winning World War II. If they did maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself and you wouldn’t be so terrified of who you are.”
I agree completely that Alan Turing and other LGBT historical figures deserve equal representation in education. I cannot recall my high school having this lesson in its curriculum, a travesty anywhere in America, but especially in the more tolerant state of California.
So on this day, I salute all of the men and women who sacrificed their lives to protect this country, and specifically gay members of the military who faced greater struggles and scrutiny merely because of their sexuality. Since the repeal of DADT, I hope that all personnel are respected for their service and granted equal rights.
It’s been almost 30 years since “The Normal Heart” was first performed. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take another 30 for America to finally realize that…