TV Review: ‘The Normal Heart’

The normal heart HBO

HBO has a storied tradition of movies and miniseries tackling gay issues (and not incidentally, timing those high-class productions toward the close of the Emmy-eligibility window, ensuring they’re fresh in the minds of voters). Add to that honor roll “The Normal Heart,” a meticulously cast adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, directed with equal passion (and a characteristic lack of subtlety) by Ryan Murphy. Anchored by Mark Ruffalo’s forceful performance as Kramer’s angry alter ego, the movie is big, loud, messy and emotional — a fitting bookend to 2003’s “Angels in America.”

Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, a writer introduced during a Fire Island romp in 1981, which essentially offers a last-call glimpse of the freewheeling times that preceded the outbreak. Soon, friends begin falling ill, as Ned seeks help from a polio-stricken doctor (Julia Roberts) and pushes to form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization intended to sound alarms within the gay community as well as to lobby for government support, initially from aloof New York mayor Ed Koch, and later the Reagan administration.

Ned’s anger — he considers closeted gays a huge part of the problem, failing to stand up and have their voices heard — makes many fellow advocates uncomfortable, starting with Bruce (Taylor Kitsch), who resists Ned’s confrontational philosophy. Ned’s campaign also brings him into contact with a closeted New York Times reporter (Matt Bomer) who, like Bruce, is reluctant to speak out, but does become the ill-fated love of Ned’s life.

Aside from chronicling the indifference of authorities as the epidemic spread, “The Normal Heart” is at its core a sustained debate about tactics. At first, the gay community sees the warnings about the “gay cancer” as just another effort to restrict them, forcing them to sacrifice the liberating gains they’ve fought so hard to win.

To Ned, though, the confounding lack of answers concerning the illness — and the fact, “Nobody gives a shit that we’re dying!” — is exacerbated by the failure of his contemporaries to fight, even if that means himself being pugnacious to the point of dismissing his own organization’s leadership as “undertakers.”

Murphy being Murphy, he can’t resist throwing in moments that drift toward an “American Horror Story” vibe, such as a subway sequence where dramatic lighting flashes in and out on a lesion-pocked face. The translation from stage to screen also yields speeches that probably played better live, although the director has for the most part opened up the Tony-winning material into movie form.

In its totality, this represents a powerful piece of work, with Ruffalo overcoming the prickly aspects of his character to convey his pain, and Jim Parsons delivering a wonderful supporting turn, including a sobering scene in which he talks about eulogizing fallen friends.

Politically, of course, anything that rehashes President Reagan’s failure to publicly mention “AIDS” until his second term will raise hackles, but in a larger sense, the movie offers a pretty good road map for where the steadfast lobbying efforts of Kramer and others lead.

Perhaps foremost, HBO once again straddles the cinematic line, providing a character-oriented drama with theatrical talent and values that would face challenges finding much purchase at the modern-day multiplex. And while there’s a premium-channel calculation in that strategy, the result is a movie, for mostly better and sometimes worse, that wears its heart on its sleeve.

TV Review: 'The Normal Heart'

(Movie; HBO, Sun. May 25, 9 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in New York by Plan B Entertainment and Blumhouse Prods. in association with Ryan Murphy Prods.

Crew

Executive producers, Ryan Murphy, Dante Di Loreto, Jason Blum, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner; co-executive producer, Mark Ruffalo; producer, Scott Ferguson; director, Murphy; writer, Larry Kramer, based on his play; camera, Danny Moder; production designer, Shane Valentino; editor, Adam Penn; music, Cliff Martinez; casting, Amanda Mackey, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond. 132 MIN.

Cast

Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Joe Mantello, Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, Stephen Spinella, Corey Stoll, Finn Wittrock, BD Wong

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  1. John Wounick says:

    I’m Not gay but watched this movie. I felt sad and hurt that our society could do this to these people. My feelings go out to all the individuals who suffered so much pain and unwanted suffering for no reason. We as Americans should take it upon ourselves to help more to find a cure for this dreaded disease.

  2. Don McParlan says:

    I am watching this movie “now” and of course it brings back the days of disco and awesome music. It
    also brings back the days l fear to tread. My partner of 27 years died in 2003, having become an
    AIDS Activist for the last 10 years of his life.

    In 1985 we travelled to Houston, Texas and at that time 150 gay men were dying a WEEK. No
    one talked to us as we were strangers in town. Life was changing as we were about to find out. In
    Canada (Edmonton,Alberta) we had not yet had our first death of AIDS. that was to come in 1987,
    when my partner and l lost over 20 friends in six months, and as time continued, we would lose
    over 200 friends.

    We moved to the country and away from the “downtown” gay life style, in retrospect we disappeared.
    My partner was diagnosed with HIV in 1989 and his health started to deteriate in 1993, so we
    moved back to the city. At that time we hardly knew anyone as most of our friends had died, including
    over 100 friends from Vancouver and San Francisco. My partner continued to teach for another
    year before, the school boad (parents) didn’t want him in the classrooms. You couldn’t hug a
    child without wearing gloves….

    My partner has been gone for over 10 years now, l have no family, but my partners family in
    Edmonton asked me not to attend family functions as it made some members uncomfortable. I
    must say it was a shocker after knowing these people for over 25 years.. My partner would
    of turned over in his grave.

    I look back now and the heartache so many experienced, l wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but
    now alone with my 3 dogs, alone, but not lonely, l earned a lot, lost a lot and STILL there is this
    “GAY THING”, the beatings, bullying and so on. I will be 67 in the fall and wish we had more
    movies on TV showing what the gay communities went through. How Pflag came about, our gay
    leaders…………..so much education still to give.

    Please watch the movie, reflect on those that are gone and be safe, even in these days

    Don McParlan
    Edmonton, Alberta
    Canada

    • Ed S. says:

      I saw this movie last night. I didn’t know anything about it but thought I’d check it out. I have to say it was one of the most moving, incredibly written and performed films I have seen in a while.
      I came to this site while checking out the reviews and saw your comments.
      I just wanted to thank you Don for sharing your experience. I am very sorry for your pain.

      Ed
      Toronto, Ontario
      Canada

  3. I saw the prescreening the movie was all over the place and I didn’t understand why you would show those days and not today. We know people died, i know people who died and the fear. were you showing how you needed to break down the doors to be heard. I left before it was over…I just could not stay on track,,I couldn’t read the story and remember anything…

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