Silence isn’t an option.
by Megan Smith
As the final credits roll by, I take a deep breath—a processing breath. It’s not often that a film comes along that shakes you to your core. That punches you in the mouth. That pulls at your heart. That grabs you by your collar of apathy, jolts you, and leaves you an activist with a burning fire. No wonder it won this year’s Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie. Welcome to The Normal Heart.
In 1985, American playwright, author, public health advocate, and LGBT rights activist Larry Kramer immortalized the previous four years of his life in a revolutionary play—four years spent fearlessly calling for action against AIDS, the new crisis plaguing the gay community. Three decades later, Kramer’s The Normal Heart is reaching a broader audience than ever with its film rendition directed by Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story).
The Normal Heart opens in the summer of 1981 with writer Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) arriving on Fire Island to meet up with friends visiting for a weekend of sexual freedom. Beautiful men freely make love on the beach, enjoying each other’s company without judgment. But when a persistent cough leads to one man’s temporary collapse, the tone of the weekend turns dark. These healthy young men start to crumble before our very eyes.
Back in New York City, Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a survivor of childhood polio, soon has a hospital full of patients plagued with “gay cancer.” Germs that wouldn’t normally harm a baby are killing gay men left and right—while the cause remains unknown. And when Brookner starts to suspect the disease is sexually transmitted, her calls for gay men to stop having sex fall on (mostly) deaf ears. Her message resonates with Weeks, however, who helps found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) along with closeted investment banker and war veteran Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons).
But working within the system fails these activists. The White House won’t listen, the New York City mayor won’t listen, and even many in the gay community won’t listen. “Nobody gives a shit we’re dying!” Weeks says. Differences in opinions on tactics cause tensions to boil within the GMHC. While Weeks chooses more radical tactics, criticizes the government, and demands action, Niles and the others fear his tactics and worry that they will affect their public image. This doesn’t faze Weeks, however, as his fight only grows more personal when his lover, New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), is diagnosed. We watch as the couple’s relationship goes from exciting and energetic to tender and fragile.
Daily funerals have now become the norm. In one of the most striking and painful scenes of the film, Niles’s lover loses his battle with the disease and, because the hospital staff refuses to handle him, his body is released in an oversized garbage bag in the building’s back alleyway. “We’re losing an entire generation—young men at their beginning, just gone,” Boatwright says during a lost friend’s eulogy. “Choreographers, playwrights, dancers, actors. All those plays won’t get written now, all those dances never to be danced. 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 Normal Heart is a reality check for an entire generation of LGBT folks who did not live through the early days of the AIDS crisis. It’s a brutally honest call for action that does not sugarcoat anything. In a world where 1.2 million people are still living with HIV in the U.S., it’s a reminder that we cannot afford to be silent. This film is necessary—beautiful, heartbreaking, and absolutely necessary.
Available from HBO Home Entertainment (hbo.com).