The Normal Heart, this year’s Emmy winner for Outstanding Television Movie, offers a stirring and useful exercise in historical remembrance, while serving up a gripping story. Based on Larry Kramer’s play from 1985, this largely autobiographical film revisits the AIDS nightmare that emerged in New York City in the early 1980’s. Kramer had an intense view of the horror as a charter member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) – one of the earliest volunteer organizations established to combat AIDS – and later founder of the world-changing activist group ACT UP.
Mark Ruffalo plays Kramer’s proxy, writer and agitator Ned Weeks. Ruffalo masterfully inhabits his lead role, as part of a committed, topnotch ensemble. He passionately argues with less assertive members of the GMHC such as Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) and Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), whom he contends are fiddling as Rome burns. In the meantime, he finds a medical equal in the comparably abrasive and vocal Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), who is rightly distressed over watching numerous young men die from a mysterious illness and justifiably enraged by the simultaneous denial and shunning of AIDS sufferers by the larger health care establishment.
In his private life, Ned confronts his lawyer brother Ben (Alfred Molina) for regarding him as defective and inferior due to his sexual orientation. And he touchingly falls in love with New York Times’ reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), who fights his own battles in urging the media to cover the growing pandemic.
Indeed, the grim specter of death from AIDS looms over all these activities and relationships, as the city and national health bureaucracies remain callously deaf, mute, and blind to the growing body count. In our more enlightened era of encoded anti-discrimination statutes, it’s jarring to recall a time when emergency rooms refused gay men life-saving assistance, and when our president unconscionably avoided discussing AIDS and fostering public education about this illness. As a physician who trained in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, the young men of this film – blotched by Kaposi’s Sarcoma and rendered delirious by sundry opportunistic infections – stirred up strong memories of the frazzled and nearly despairing infectious disease wards where I spent many long evenings as a fresh, naive doctor.
Much to The Normal Heart’s credit, the film’s main characters, while engaging in heroic battle with ignorance and indifference, are far from saintly or faultless. The leadership of the GMHC engages in nasty power grabbing and infighting, while other characters such as Tommy Boatwright struggle awkwardly to find their public voice in this public health catastrophe. In a candid moment, Ned even freely admits that he often behaves like an assh**e. Such flawed humanity, however, only serves to enhance the film’s plausibility and deepen my connection to the characters in The Normal Heart.
Almost automatically, I turned for comparison to last year’s very good AIDS-themed movie, Dallas Buyers Club. While the story and cast of Dallas were quite affecting, I consider The Normal Heart a winner by a nose in overall quality. Most significantly, Ruffalo’s character Ron Weeks is much more relatable than Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodruff. The breadth and depth of Weeks’ personal connections, the stress of his battle within and outside the GMHC, and the growing commitment to his partner Felix moved me more powerfully than Woodruff’s travails.
The defects in The Normal Heart are relatively few. Cliff Martinez’ score felt overmanipulative in a couple of scenes, and a handful of lines were formulaically pulled from the “righteously indignant on my high horse” Hollywood playbook.
Otherwise, The Normal Heart contains solid storytelling through and through. HBO Films has delivered a handful of standout contemporary biographies in recent years, which have been remarkable accomplishments of empathy building. Temple Grandin astounded me with its kinetic demonstration of life as seen and heard by an autistic person. You Don’t Know Jack showcased Al Pacino doing some of his best acting in years, immersively portraying Dr. Jack Kevorkian. And The Normal Heart offered this introverted straight film critic a look at a traumatic chapter of American history through the eyes of an in-your-face gay activist, and I am definitely enriched by this privilege.
4 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: The Normal Heart is rated TV-MA for sexuality, nudity, language, and some disturbing images. Kid-wise, I would recommend this film only for older adolescents.)