If I had to sum up this very gripping and poignant movie in four words, these would be the ones on my list: acceptance, action, answers and awareness. I was very young in the early 1980s (in fact, I had just started school) when this movie takes place. I was a little girl, attending Kindergarten and had a carefree existence, with family that loved me and friends to play with. By total contrast, imagine being a man in the early 1980s – a gay man – and knowing that not everyone accepted you and your lifestyle. Imagine the fear and stigma of people treating you like a second class citizen, mocking you and openly professing hatred to you, simply because you love someone of the same gender.
This is a movie about one man’s struggle to overcome hatred, fear and wanting to take action – real action – not just empty lip service – in order to bring attention and awareness to the plight of the AIDS/HIV epidemic that surfaced in the early 1980s.
Ned Weeks is our protagonist – a writer with a frank perspective (no sugar coating), an openly gay man and proud of it. He has an older brother, Ben, who is still coming to terms with it. His best friend is Bruce, who is a closeted gay man and an investment banker. Other friends in Ned’s group include Tommy, who helps to start the Gay Men’s Health Crisis hotline group; Felix, a reporter and later on, Ned’s partner and Mickey, a longtime friend.
Ned struggles with the fact that he saw one of his friends die of something – a mysterious disease that was labelled as a type of cancer in homosexual men. Nobody knew what it was and how it was spread but more to the point, the fact that many gay men in Ned’s circles were becoming ill and dying of it was a very scary fact and one that was life altering. Ned finds a champion in Dr. Emma Brookner, who has a very blunt edged way of putting things to her patients. She has a frank assessment of what gay men should be doing while this epidemic is coming to light: stop having sexual relations with each other.
Emma is herself the survivor of childhood polio and is confined to a wheelchair. While her legs aren’t the most stable, her mind is brilliant and she toils day and night, treating gay men with the disease, while studying the ravages of it and applying for grants and research money in order to try to find treatments and perhaps, the root cause of the virus.
This movie also examines the emotional impact that the early AIDS/HIV epidemic had: for Ned, it’s the devastating knowledge that the diagnosis comes so close to home; for Bruce, it’s learning to stand up and fight for what he believes in and to take action; for Tommy, it’s exploring his depression at seeing all his friends dying while nobody cares and Emma, who is constantly frustrated and undermined at every turn by callous hospital workers and potential funders who back out on the basis that she doesn’t provide ‘sufficient data’ for this illness.
This movie is not for the faint at heart, as you see the physical toll it takes on the victims. Not only that, but the emotional rollercoaster that Ned endures while constantly trying to bring awareness to get people to stand up and notice that something very sinister is killing men in the gay community, is heart wrenching. Ned’s blunt nature begins to alienate many people, even though he has cause to be so upset.
After watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think, what if that was my brother, uncle, nephew or good friend that was suffering? What lengths would I go to help them in their battle for equality, for awareness and for political/legal action? After all, we’re talking about human beings. There were moments where I cried and times when I felt absolutely frustrated beyond belief. I take some small comfort in knowing that times are changing, that political action and awareness has taken place and that people don’t have to hide in the shadows about who they love.
Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts nailed their parts – the angst, the frustration and the isolation of trying to do something, anything, to get the message across that this disease was lethal and people needed to do something. Matt Bomer’s role is staggering – not only does he provide Ned with some emotional security, but he transforms himself to show the physical frailty brought on by AIDS/HIV. I don’t watch Big Bang Theory but know of the series and I have to say that Jim Parsons was incredible; he was sympathetic and action oriented in his role. He exuded a quiet dignity and strength at a time when fear was a prime emotion.
I highly recommend watching this movie. Make sure you have a box of Kleenex handy.