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.