A made for TV movie is one of the best movies of the year so far. Let that sink in for a moment… Made for TV movie. Best of the year.
Has the gravity of that sunk in yet? Good.
Obviously, I watch a lot of movies. I can usually see where a plot is going or understand why something works well or something doesn’t. And when I first heard of The Normal Heart, my initial reaction was “Great. Another fucking AIDS movie.” This is in no way to diminish the plight of those infected with HIV or AIDS, but these films always have the same plot about the protagonists fighting against an uncaring system and ultimately watching everyone around them die to the disease. I’ve gotten the message hammered in so much after so many of these damn things that anything new just seems redundant. And yeah, The Normal Heart still follows that same basic outline, but it’s distinguished by two things, the first of which is Mark Ruffalo’s fantastic performance. More importantly, though, it perfectly captures an aspect of the AIDS epidemic’s beginnings that is rarely adequately covered, and that is the all-encompassing fear that permeated that era.
The film follows the life of Ned Weeks (Ruffalo), an openly gay activist for gay rights in the early 1980s. He’s somewhat a pariah in the gay community because he is radical in his desire that all gay men come out of the closet and demand social acceptance. The gay community of that era was in the midst of a countercultural movement that emphasized that their sexual pleasure with one another was not something to be ashamed of, so sex was the primary focus of the gay community’s inner politics. When the “gay cancer” started to make its way through its first unsuspecting victims, Weeks started a movement to stop anonymous sexual activity to prevent the spread of the disease, much to his colleagues' chagrin. As the years went by, Weeks’ organization grew through grassroots campaigning and awareness-raising in order to assist those dying of the disease, but it was ultimately still an insular organization fighting against a disease that the greater straight hegemony had no interest in assisting in.
Meanwhile, Ned’s personal life reflects his struggles with the organization, for he is a man who at first struggled with personal intimacy, then found the love of his life, and then watched that love slowly die to the very disease he was trying so hard to eradicate. Ruffalo’s performance is nuanced and heart-breaking, portraying a man who not only is desperate to fight for a cause he believes in, but doesn’t know how to handle it when it starts to affect him personally. He’s constantly frustrated with the fact that his fellow campaigners refuse to make their identities public in order to spread awareness, and his desperation leads to tactics that ultimately alienate him from the very community he’s trying to protect.
And that’s the film’s greatest strength; it isn’t just about a fight against a disease or against a society that rejects homosexuality. It is about a fight against the internal struggle of every gay man over whether to reveal his identity to straight society, and face the social ostracism that comes with it. For almost everyone in the film, that fear is greater than their fear of death at the hands of AIDS. Ned is constantly villainized for wanting to take steps that would force those in power into action, for wanting to stand up as a group of several million homosexuals and force society to recognize their existence as human beings. Alas, fear won out in the end: the gay mens’ fear of coming out; straight society’s fear of alternative sexualities; the fear that nothing would be done until straight people also started contracting the disease.
I cried during this film. This is a very rare thing. I watch a lot of movies with a lot of sad moments, but this made me tear up. This is more than just another made-for-TV movie or just another movie about AIDS. This is a film that is well-made, emotionally-gripping, and does a great job of portraying one of the great American tragedies of the 20th century. It deserves its Best Made-For-TV Movie Emmy and Critics Choice Awards and whatever other accolades it has coming its way. It is well worth seeing.
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