An Early Frost
Wolfe Video // Unrated // $19.99 // July 18, 2006
Review by Raymond So | posted July 20, 2006
DVD Talk Collector Series
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The Movie:
'An Early Frost' was a groundbreaking television movie that was shown on NBC as the AIDS epidemic was finally hitting the public conscience in 1985. It was the first film ever about AIDS. 'An Early Frost' was the top rated show on TV the night it premiered, pulling in 1/3 of the television audience, and went on to be nominated for 14 Emmy Awards (winning 4 of them), as well as winning a Golden Globe Award. It stars Aidan Quinn, along with such acclaimed actors as Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Terry O'Quinn, Bill Paxton, Sylvia Sidney, and John Glover. The screenplay was written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, who went on to be the creators and producers of Showtime's "Queer As Folk."

The film tells the tale of gay lawyer Michael Pierson, who is diagnosed with AIDS, and shows his struggles with his lover, family, and himself as he copes with the reality of his impending death and the prejudices and ignorance of those around him. This was a time when little was known about AIDS or how it was transmitted, and the film captures the uncertainty and fear of a nation terrified by the "gay plague". The movie shows the real-life paranoia of the time, when paramedics routinely would refuse to transport AIDS patients, when waiters would refuse to touch a glass used by a gay man, when family members would refuse to be in the same room as someone with AIDS believing that the disease could be caught from just breathing the air near them, and a time before there were any AIDS medications at all, when getting AIDS meant a certain death sentence for those diagnosed with the disease. For those who lived through that time, this is a gripping reminder of the insanity and terror of that period. For those too young to remember that period of history, this is one of the few portrayals that captures the nation's ignorance and fear of AIDS in the mid-80s, something many in the younger generations may not even know happened.

The performances are powerful and unforgettable, ripping straight through to your heart. We see the bravery of those early victims of the disease who had to live without the support and hope available today. Besides dealing with AIDS, the movie also shows Michael having to come out to his family, and the difficulty they have accepting that he is gay. The film captures the heartbreaking struggles many families went through at the time, when gay men were forced to reveal their sexual identity to their parents after learning they had AIDS. Besides the main characters, one performance particularly worth noting is John Glover (now Lionel Luthor on "Smallville") as a fellow AIDS patient in a flamboyant, outrageous role that is completely different from his "Smallville" character.

This is not an easy movie to watch, but one that should almost be required viewing. At the time, the movie helped the nation understand the reality of AIDS, how it is passed, and what patients had to face. Now, it is an important historical document that allows us to never forget the incredible pain of a generation decimated in the early days of AIDS in a story that reflects what thousands of gay men went through at the time, a story that all too many younger people have never heard.

The DVD:

This film is presented in the original television full-frame format. The video quality is a bit soft, and the colors somewhat muted. There are occasional artifacts that appear on screen, from tiny specks to thin lines that were not cleaned up fully during the DVD mastering. Still the quality is acceptable given the source material, and in general, the film looks like the mid-80's TV program that it is.

This one audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0. There is not a lot of fidelity in the audio, and it sounds like the typical 80's TV show. Voices are clear and understandable though, and the audio quality is quite adequate for this type of program. There is also a closed-captioned option for the hearing impaired, selectable from the DVD menu. Interestingly, the closed-captioning is "on" by default, so unless you turn it off through the menu, the movie will play with closed-captioning descriptive subtitles.

The bonus features include a trailer for 'An Early Frost' as well as previews for other titles from Wolfe Video. There is also a great bonus documentary featurette from 1986 included called "Living With AIDS" that follows a 21-year-old AIDS patient and the volunteers who tried to help him through his last days. This is the perfect non-fictional companion to 'An Early Frost''s fictionalized tale, showing the actual plight of someone with the disease and displaying the courage, love, and activism of the gay community trying desperately to help their own. This documentary includes some incredible footage of the 1985 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade that gives the viewer some wonderful historical images from that early time in gay liberation. Finally, the DVD includes a commentary track by star Aidan Quinn along with writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman. This is fascinating and insightful listening, since so much has changed in the 21 years since the movie was made, and the commentators provide a lot of analysis and comparison of the early days of AIDS versus what is now known today about the disease. For example, they reveal that when they first developed the script, the virus had not even been isolated, and AIDS was not even known by that name yet; instead the disease was first known as GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). (Interestingly, we noted that the term "HIV" is never used in the film, as it was made before HIV was diagnosed. Instead, patients at the time seemed to simply progress from healthy to having AIDS.) The movie was made during a time when medical knowledge about AIDS was changing almost on a daily basis, and the writers even kept the actor who played the doctor on contract so his scenes could be reshot at the last minute even through the night before the actual airing, so the latest medical breakthroughs could be included in the script. The writers also talk about the groundbreaking challenge of making a film featuring two gay lovers, and how the network was terrified that the writers might show two men kissing (which does not occur in the film), and they discuss how it was considered brave for its time to even show the lovers sitting together. They reminisce about how the network was adamantly afraid of showing Michael's grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) kissing Michael's cheek, as they believed that might have been risky behavior, and how it took intervention from the head of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) to assure them that AIDS could not be passed from such casual contact before they would allow the scene. They commend the network for standing behind the film when advertisers would not advertise during the airing. They also comment on modern issues of gay promiscuity and crystal meth use, comparing it to the behavior of the gay community before the threat of AIDS was known. The writers also state how unfortunate it is that the film is still relevant after all these years, instead of becoming archaic as they had expected. All in all, this is a commentary track not to be missed as it is extremely enlightening and almost as important as the film itself for the viewer's education and understanding of the subject matter.

Final Thoughts:
This historically important film is being released on DVD on the 25th anniversary of the AIDS crisis. Besides the importance of the material, it is also must-see viewing for the compelling and powerful performances that make it easy to see why the film was honored by so many awards. Some scenes are certainly difficult to view, such as seeing the bigotry and ignorance towards gay men and AIDS patients at the time, and the scenes of patients with KS (karposis sarcoma) lesions all over their faces, but they only show the reality of the disease and the experiences of those afflicted. This is a film that will bring up complex emotions from viewers, and gay men in particular will either have unpleasant memories of that era brought back if they lived through it, or else will learn about a critically important time in the history of the gay community. It is also an important reminder of the reality that AIDS still has no cure, and despite the hope offered by modern HIV cocktails to control the disease, a cure has yet to be found. For all viewers though, this is one film that must be seen by all, and we consider it one of the most important TV movies of all time.

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