HBO's The Normal Heart begins just before any items I may have heard about in the news, before anyone knew there was a coming plague. As I was getting my developing sense of self intertwined with fear of a deadly disease, the actual people that the film's characters are based on were living it. It had to be terrifying, and enraging. The film centers upon the activists who were desperately trying to get a handle on what began to be known as "GRID," and later AIDS. These activists weren't just at ground zero of the disease, they were present for the waning days of the sexual revolution, and the height of 1970s/early 80s excess, which was magnified in the gay community.
But the ultimate party had a hell of a hangover. Put a sexually transmitted disease into a group that has lots of sex, and you have the perfect storm. Throw in other "undesirables" like IV drug users, and you get a shrug from the general public, at least at first. I remember hearing things like "AIDS is a punishment from God," and "Hey, it's killing all the right people." Getting people to care was difficult, and getting people to help was even harder. Add to that, the disease itself was amazingly adaptable, and difficult to pin down, and also easy to spread. It was (and still is) a horror show.
Somehow, as this was evolving, I was able to see through the negative public take on AIDS, the biased and unflattering portrayals in the media--even from hard news sources--and see what was happening. That's one thing that I always felt about being gay, and I really don't know how I arrived at it: "I'm not wrong, everyone else is." I never felt guilty, or ashamed, or bad for who I was. And I didn't assign those things to AIDS sufferers either. But it sure would have been easy to in those early days.
The protagonist in The Normal Heart is based upon its author, Larry Kramer, and played (very well) by Mark Ruffalo. Kramer in real life is an abrasive guy, and quite polarizing, even in the gay community. The film doesn't pull punches there. It follows him (or rather, his avatar) as AIDS starts taking his friends, and ultimately his partner (Matt Bomer, who goes from stunningly gorgeous to wasted away and covered with sores), while local and federal government stands on the sidelines. The film is ultimately a snapshot in time, covering the early development of the AIDS crisis before it really had that name. As such, there is no happy ending of course, and no resolution. As HIV is still not cured (though much more manageable and preventable), it still kills people in great numbers today.
The film is worth a view, particularly if you--like me--were not at the heart of it. I was 19 by the time Rock Hudson died, and the disease went "mainstream". I basically sat out the worst years of the crisis, having been young, stuck in an unrequited love situation and being terrified to do anything about it. So, I didn't lose any friends, and have to date known very few people with HIV (that I'm aware of). And while nobody would lament not having lived through it personally, it does make me feel a bit disconnected from it.
That's why films like this are important though, to connect you to what happened. To realize what our community has been through, and to see how far we've come. And when it is done like this film was, with excellent actors, treated with a measure of reverence, it's even better. I will be shocked if The Normal Heart doesn't pick up a number of Emmys and other awards. It's worth your time, I highly recommend it. But get your box of tissues ready.
The Normal Heart is available on HBO Go, and HBO On Demand, and also stars Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts and Taylor Kitsch.