Judge Brett Cullum got chills from this landmark film—and they had nothing to do with the weather.
Doctor: Allow him to have hope. It's the only weapon he has.
The first made-for-TV film to deal with AIDS debuted in 1985. The epidemic began around 1981, but it took years for the disease unceremoniously nicknamed "The Gay Plague" to venture into the living rooms of Middle America. Even today An Early Frost would be a brave production for broadcast television. Wolfe Video has decided to finally release a special edition of a movie that taught many people what was happening because so few wanted to talk about the disease. Over twenty years later, have any of us changed?
Facts of the Case
Michael Pierson (Aidan Quinn, Legends of the Fall) is a successful Chicago lawyer with a loving family that includes a piano virtuoso mother (Gena Rowlands, The Skeleton Key) and a strong silent father (Ben Gazzara, Dogville). Michael has kept his lover (D.W. Moffett, Crossing Jordan) a secret and has never revealed his lifestyle. One fateful day a doctor (Terry O'Quinn, Lost) tells him that his pneumonia is a symptom of something much more serious. Michael's world begins to crumble as fear and misunderstanding invade every heart close to him.
When An Early Frost was made, not much was known about AIDS, and there was a lot of guessing on the details. Scenes such as the one in which Michael's sister snatches her young son away from him seem cruel now, but twenty years ago her reaction would have been expected. The movie is a horrifying medical mystery with none of the characters quite sure what anything means. Michael suffers through every symptom and stage of the illness in rapid-fire succession and at a dizzying pace. The characters hardly have room to breathe before the next crisis or confrontation comes along. It's a gut-wrenching experience, and particularly hard to watch in retrospect. You have to put the movie into its context as a historical event packaged as a movie of the week. An Early Frost sought to educate viewers, address myths, and allay the fears of the general public. It strives hard to cover every angle it can think of in regard to the early era of AIDS. The actors are uniformly great, but they are given tons of dialogue that has the clunk of agenda and medical information resounding behind each moment. The miracle is that most of the cast overcomes this problem exceptionally well.
Even with misconceptions, ugly ignorance, and the aggressive agenda, An Early Frost remains engrossing and moving. It was written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, the personal and professional partners who also delivered the American version of Queer as Folk to Showtime. They handle the issue sensitively with great compassion, giving An Early Frost a distinct air of unapologetic honor in the face of a crisis. They do the right thing with the film, and it was a defining moment both in their career and in gay media history. It was the first feature film to deal with AIDS, and for many people it was their introduction to the crisis.
The extras for this disc from Wolfe Video are very well produced. There is a commentary with lead actor Aidan Quinn and writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman. It's a lively track with a lot of information on making the movie. They do pause quite a few times, but you get the feeling it is because they are watching and thinking about the work. One of the most powerful extras on the disc is the PBS documentary Living with AIDS, which aired in 1987. It follows the last year of Todd Coleman's life as he struggles through the final stages of the disease at twenty-one years old. The 30-minute program is as hard hitting as the feature, and possibly more so because it is real.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Anyone looking for a stellar transfer or amped-up sound can skip this one. The picture looks like what it is, a TV movie from the '80s—fullscreen, grainy, and soft. It's odd that the trailer for An Early Frost is in widescreen while the feature is a fullscreen affair. The commercial seems to come from a theatrical release of the movie at some point. The sound is tinny and sounds mono even though it is stereo. Not much was done to clean this one up, and it looks as if a VHS master might have been used. Actually, that might make sense given the broadcast origins of the film.
An Early Frost is a rough ride in the present day. It will be extremely hard for people affected by AIDS to sit through, because it comes off as uncomplicated and tidy. Michael crosses over every obstacle without too many hiccups, and his family comes around quickly even with the rocky start in the first reel. We are reminded constantly that this is a television film because of the dialogue and the rays of hope in every scene. Yet at the time of its release, hope was in short supply. I believe the movie is vastly superior to the similarly themed hit Philadelphia in many ways, but it can't quite escape the small-screen stereotypes.
An Early Frost is a landmark movie for many reasons, and it should be seen as the brave first voice of AIDS. When it aired on a Monday night back in 1985 it beat out every other show in the ratings, including Monday Night Football. It has a rich history, and it's a project that deserves its great reputation. Wolfe Video has tied up the package with a red ribbon, providing us with a DVD that allows us to examine why the film meant so much. This is important material, and it should be mandatory viewing for everyone. The horrors of the disease in those early days should never be forgotten. People were quarantined, isolated, and searching for anyone to help them confront a disease that was severely misunderstood. The sad part is that many people out there still have no idea about the details of AIDS. Sometimes it seems as if there is a veil around it, and anything that pierces it is brave and worth championing. Thankfully An Early Frost is a well-constructed television drama in addition to featuring a politically forward message.
Guilty of being the wake-up call for much of America, An Early Frost is a watershed event that should be in any collection. Recent figures show that 40 million people around the world have AIDS, so its message of love and tolerance should still easily resonate today.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wolfe Video
• Commentary by Actor Aidan Quinn and Writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman
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