In case you missed it, The Normal Heart has been making waves in the film and television industry. Out on home video last month and winning this year’s Emmy Award for Best Television Movie, The Normal Heart is HBO’s movie masterpiece that can open up a young audience’s eyes to a seemingly new, terrifying experience from more than one perspective. And that makes it worth talking about months after it’s first airing.
Being a late-80s baby, there are a lot of things that happened before I came along that can, unfortunately, just come across as another story; it can be easy to feel disconnected with a history that you weren’t a part of. But there are times when stories from the past become something more in the present. Lee Daniels’ The Butler gave me that experience not long ago. Now, The Normal Heart is another to add to this short list of movies that breaks through the barrier between story and experience (without 3D effects).
Based on the formation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), The Normal Heart offers a deep look into the terrifying reality of a disease that can destroy a whole segment of society; the film also rips apart widespread stereotypes. Mainly following Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo)—an author, fierce defender of the GMHC, and cutthroat critic of mainstream society—the film offers several perspectives on the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80s that decimated the gay population.
First dubbed “gay cancer” due to a lack of understanding of the disease and its prominence within the gay community, the spread of the disease was blamed on promiscuity, which was one major stereotype when it came to this minority. Likewise, the film opens with Ned attending a party where sexuality is displayed openly and there are orgies galore. Yet the film goes on to tear down these stereotypes by showing that the disease doesn’t only affect the so-called promiscuous, but that it is also prominent among monogamous couples, offering yet another perspective to the mix. On top of that, we see the reaction from the medical community, with the lack of funding and devoted research into this devastating disease—the reason for which clearly comes down to the affected demographic’s sexual orientation, as we’re shown with the secret government funding of the GMHC’s efforts. (Officials were eventually willing to help, but only if it was kept from the public.)
And all of this started with a scene in which Ned reads a simple newspaper clipping. That is perhaps the scariest part—that one seemingly minor story grows into a pandemic that’s impossible to fight due to discrimination. Not only are the victims fighting a rapidly progressing, unknown enemy, but they are also being turned into the perpetrators in the wider public eye.
Overall, the performances are outstanding, particularly those from Mark Ruffalo, Frank de Julio, Taylor Kitsch, and Matt Bromer—though the list could go on. The only shortfall: Julia Roberts as Dr. Emma Brookner. Based on real-life HIV/AIDS researchers and polio patient Dr. Linda Laubenstein, Roberts’ character is the first doctor to take a hard stance in researching and fighting the disease, so you’d think this would naturally be a strong supporting role. However, there’s something about Roberts’ onscreen efforts that seem contrived and overplayed; her actions and words are forced. But perhaps that’s the point; the frustration and anger builds up in desperation as the larger population sits there, doing nothing.
As I said, this film is an experience; not just a story. In the end, the frustration may consume you, too.