I’ve watched The Normal Heart three times over the last week.
Anxiety interferes with a lot of things that it doesn’t even make sense for it to interfere with. Like absorbing new media. Everyone knows that anxious people sometimes have trouble leaving the house, or being otherwise social; I’m not sure how many people who haven’t struggled with anxiety know that it can also make it scary to venture into unpredictable emotional territory by getting caught up in a movie or a book you haven’t read before. But that’s one of the biggest things I struggle with. If you’re the sort of person who connects deeply with character and story, watching a new movie is a lot like going to a stranger’s house for the first time. Will I like the people I’m going to spend time with? Are they going to say or do things that make my anxiety worse? Will I feel trapped there, obligated to stick it out to the end even though I’m having a really bad time of it emotionally?
With regards to The Normal Heart, I actually know a lot of people who’ve delayed seeing it or decided to give it a miss altogether, because all you have to do is watch the trailer to know that it’s going to be devastating. The Normal Heart is about the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, when no one knew anything about AIDS except that it was killing gay men in droves. The story follows writer and activist Ned Weeks as he tries to raise awareness about the disease in the face of indifference from the straight world and opposition to his confrontational methods from the gay community.
I tend to feel intense sympathetic anxiety for characters who are trying to tell the world an important truth that no one wants to listen to. It borders on being triggering. But stories about the fight for justice, equality, representation, etc., are my favorites kind of stories, so I knew I couldn’t not watch it. Plus, it’s about queer history.
A well-known problem with queer media is that it tends to be depressing as hell. I know plenty of queer people who find movies like this too upsetting to watch, just like I know die-hard Benedict Cumberbatch fans who aren’t sure they’ll be able to bear seeing The Imitation Game (trailer link) because they know how Alan Turing’s story ends. I definitely had to gird my mental loins before I sat down to watch, but I’m so glad I did, because if nothing else, The Normal Heart proved just how little queer history I actually knew.
The very first thunderclap realization I had when watching The Normal Heart was that the AIDS epidemic came into the world around the same time I did. I was born in 1982; the events in the movie take place between 1981 and 1984. But when Mark Ruffalo gets off the Fire Island ferry in the opening scenes and puts on a pair of the same kind of giant mirrored sunglasses my dad wore when I was a kid, I instantly felt that thrill of connection: these are events that took place in my lifetime. This is not ancient history, it’s the very recent past.
The next thunderclap came when I understood just how suddenly AIDS appeared on the scene. This is beautifully dramatized by the contrast between the carefree summer vacation scenes at the beginning of the movie when Ned is on Fire Island, and the scene when Ned goes to Emma Brookner’s office after reading the New York Times article on “gay cancer”. He goes from zero awareness to witnessing a friend die suddenly and horribly in the blink of a cinematic eye.
I think I must have assumed that awareness of the epidemic dawned much more gradually than it actually did. I had no context for understanding the kind of resistance, both in the straight world and in the gay community, that early AIDS activists met with. There’s never been a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of AIDS–not since I was old enough to be aware of anything at all. I vividly remember being a second grader in 1990 and watching news coverage of teenager Ryan White’s death. At eight years old, I knew the basics of how AIDS could be transmitted. In 1995, when I was thirteen, I was chatting on IRC with other queer people of all ages from all over the world, where I met HIV+ gay men for the first time. In high school, my entire drama department would gather outside the administrative offices and sing songs from Rent after school. AIDS has simply always been part of the landscape of my reality–a bedrock danger of human existence, like cancer or fatal car accidents.
So I think I just assumed that once people became aware of AIDS, everyone must have reacted like Ned does in the movie–immediately recognizing the gravity of the threat and throwing everything they had into fighting it. Which really just proves that I never thought about it very hard, because God knows I know how homophobia works. But The Normal Heart also provides a perspective on something that had never occurred to me, which is that the even in the gay community, a lot of people didn’t know how to respond. In the early days of the epidemic, even the doctors who knew the most about AIDS hadn’t arrived at a consensus about how it was transmitted. Their best recommendation for preventing the spread of the disease was to advise gay men to stop having sex. But gay men had been told all their lives not to have sex with men; of course they were suspicious of that advice.
I kind of feel bad that so much of my reaction to this movie is about the real events that inspired it, rather than the movie itself as a creative work, because I feel like my ignorance of history creates an artificial level of shock that distracts from the movie’s artistic merit. Part of me wants to say that this is exactly why it’s a good thing the movie came out now, when it can draw attention to an era that even plenty of queer people my age weren’t familiar with. But the rest of me is furious that the movie didn’t get made a long time ago. Larry Kramer wrote the stage version of The Normal Heart in 1985; it’s hard not to think that if the movie had come out in 1986, it might have saved lives. Instead, it came out in 2014, when it was “safe”, and the straight world could watch it comfortably in the knowledge that it was a previous generation’s indifference that had done the damage.
One of the remarkable things about the movie is the fact that it’s not just horror with no relief. The love story between Ned and his boyfriend Felix is incredibly charming and full of joy, and even the sorrow of Felix’s illness is buoyed up by the steadfast faith and support in their relationship. There’s triumph in the tragedy, as two men claim their right to love each other and be happy in the face of death and bigotry. To me, the most important bit of dialogue in the story has nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic, or Ned’s activism. It’s something Felix says to Ned on their first date: “Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.” He’s talking about more than just the culture of casual sex in the gay community; he’s also talking about the difficulty of finding love when the whole world is telling you that the way you love is wrong.
Another very impressive thing about the movie is that Ned’s fury and moral outrage provides the viewer with an anodyne against total despair–but at the same time, characters like Mickey and Bruce, who are terrified by Ned’s loud, confrontational style of activism, are also completely sympathetic. I related to Ned’s anger on a deeply personal level. I see his disdain for soft, conciliatory rhetoric in my own life; I know where that kind of outrage comes from. But I also appreciated it when Bruce points out that Ned has an independent income, while the rest of them are in danger of losing their jobs if they get outed. Ned is unfair when he accuses Bruce of cowardice; but Bruce and Mickey are equally unfair when they shut Ned out. Everyone involved is too emotionally affected to maintain perspective and see that both styles of activism are effective and necessary.
All in all, The Normal Heart is an extraordinary viewing experience. The actors deliver amazing, impassioned, nuanced performances. The viewer risks heartbreak, watching it, but to my mind it’s worth it–the kind of hurt that makes you grow.