Directed by: Ryan Murphy
Premise: A dramatization of gay activists mobilizing in the early years of the AIDS crisis.
What Works: There is a small subgenre of dramatic movies about AIDS, including titles like Philadelphia, Dallas Buyers Club, And the Band Played On, Angels in America, and Kids. These movies have taken varied approaches to their subject matter but one of the curious constants in these films has been the downplay or absence of homosexuality. The fact is that this disease severely impacted the gay community, especially in the 1980s, but a lot of films dealing with AIDS, particularly mainstream titles, have avoided linking AIDS to the gay subculture. Whether this has been done out of a sense of political correctness or a fear that the movie might be “too gay” for mainstream audiences, it’s made the cinematic depiction of the AIDS crisis incomplete. The Normal Heart is an attempt to tell the story of the AIDS crisis from the point of view of people within the gay subculture who were on the front lines lobbying for public recognition of the epidemic and investment in research and treatment. The movie succeeds in doing that and the film does exactly what a dramatization should: it tells the human story of a historical moment. The Normal Heart begins by depicting gay culture, or at least one facet of it, in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1970s. That’s important because something the film deals with especially well is the relationship between private sexual behavior, personal identity, and political ideology. As depicted in the film, homosexual activity at this specific time was not just about lust or even love; sexual intercourse actually had a political meaning and public displays of sexuality and brazen proclamations of sexual prowess were not just about masculine posturing but also served an ideological function. The film deals with the difficulty of reconciling that this expression of liberation could actually lead to a terminal illness. This leads to conflicts among the main cast of characters, and that is one of the extraordinary things about The Normal Heart. This is a film that portrays homosexuals not as saints or as hysterical queens but as people and the homosexual community is not depicted as a monolithic group but as a collection of individuals who each possess unique desires, flaws, and agendas. That gives The Normal Heart an edge over virtually all other AIDS dramas.
What Doesn’t: The Normal Heart was originally a stage play that premiered in 1985. At the time the play was written the AIDS crisis was at its peak, and the play was a provocative screed against the establishment but also against the placatory voices in gay activism. In that context The Normal Heart came across as a virulent call for activism on behalf of AIDS patients in particular and the gay community in general. The movie adaptation of The Normal Heart comes almost three decades after the debut of the stage play. In 2014 AIDS is still a part of national and global health concerns but the discourse around it is much more nuanced than it was then, in part because the disease isn’t the death sentence that it was in the 1980s and because homosexuality is much more tolerated in America today than it was at that time. As a result, the film version of The Normal Heart isn’t as immediately provocative as it once was. Viewers who come to The Normal Heart expecting to learn about the history of ACT UP and AIDS won’t find it here. A dramatic movie like this does not really exist to educate viewers on the facts; drama is about studying the human aspects of life and this film does that well. Viewers who are looking to learn more about the history of AIDS and activism should seek out the documentary film How to Survive a Plague, which would make an excellent double bill with The Normal Heart.
DVD extras: Featurette.
Bottom Line: The Normal Heart is a well-made film of complicated characters coping with a difficult situation. Within the subgenre of AIDS dramas this is one of the best and most important titles but it’s also a powerful and well-acted story.
Episode: #507 (September 7, 2014)