HBO’s new movie The Normal Heart is based on a quasi-autobiographical play by Larry Kramer about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York. The most breathtaking achievement of that play is its timing—it was produced in 1985 and covered the first half of the decade, before doctors had much idea what they were dealing with. That immediacy charges every scene. AIDS stories are never set that early. Angels In America and Dallas Buyers Club open in 1985. ACT UP, the activist organization founded by Kramer that is at the center of 2012 documentary How To Survive A Plague, was formed in 1987. Rent starts in 1989. But The Normal Heart goes from the first reporting on “gay cancer” and ends before President Reagan ever even acknowledged the plague. Of all these looks at the early days of the AIDS epidemic, The Normal Heart stands on the front lines, screaming at the top of its lungs that people are dying. Unfortunately, powerful as the play is, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of it makes for a cinematic tearjerker that’s more relentless than it is masterful.
HBO’s adaptation of The Normal Heart opens at a Fire Island shindig in 1981. Craig (played here by Jonathan Groff) welcomes protagonist Ned (Mark Ruffalo), introduces his boyfriend Bruce (Taylor Kitsch), and at one point loses consciousness for a second on the beach. Ned, a writer and self-proclaimed asshole based on Kramer, had been warning the gay community against the psychological dangers of promiscuity but soon learns about the physical dangers as well: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” reads the New York Times’ first mention of the disease. Craig dies almost as soon as he’s diagnosed, and Ned and Bruce begin an organization, Gay National Health Crisis, to make some noise about the disease—Bruce playing good cop to Ned’s bad. Also involved are Craig’s doctor, Emma (Julia Roberts), a closeted Times style writer named Felix (Matt Bomer), and a self-reported Southern bitch (whose performance begs to differ) named Tommy (Jim Parsons).
Kramer’s script is a landmark for its timing, but it necessarily ends before there is any progress—fracturing from lengthy conversations to a series of monologues as AIDS takes its toll. It also neatly winds Ned’s journey through a number of obstructions, the better to get the audience’s dander up. The federal government refuses to acknowledge AIDS, much less fund significant research. Ned’s brother, Ben (Alfred Molina), loves and supports Ned, but can’t bring himself to actually help—standing in for all the so-called allies who are the hardest enemies to see.
Most of all, there’s gay resistance. Closeted politicians try to sweep the issue under the rug so as not to call attention to themselves. The out-and-proud bunch refuse to keep their pants zipped, and Kramer’s script is as sympathetic as it is damning. After all, they’ve spent their lives fighting for exactly that sexual liberation, often at the cost of families and careers. How can they be asked to give that up? And if they do acknowledge the disease is a clear and present danger to the gay community, was all the work of the sexual revolution simply to transform them from “fags” and “sissies” to scapegoats for an epidemic? The Normal Heart is fundamentally a clash between two opposing ideologies, Bruce’s handsome, conventional, inside-the-box institutional appeasement versus Ned’s ugly, urgent, disruptive sausage-making.
In the sense that the script is an apologia for activist stridency and noise, it fits Ryan Murphy’s work like a key. The writer and executive producer’s high school dramedy, Glee, proudly waves its issue-of-the-week afterschool-special banner, especially when it comes to queer causes, and the series is never shy about asserting itself. Discrimination is a problem, Glee says, and here is exactly what needs to be done about it. And as one of the loudest voices behind gay issues on-screen in Hollywood, Murphy’s a natural for The Normal Heart.
But Murphy’s also a misanthrope fueled by some of Ned’s fire, and his Normal Heart is one long funeral procession. Perhaps he sees a kindred spirit in Kramer’s protagonist, but it’s rare to see much of Murphy’s mischief shine through the material beyond sparing flourishes, like a snap zoom or a gaudy barrage of action. One exception comes during a first date between Ned and Felix. Ned doesn’t remember they’ve met—indeed, they’ve already had sex—so Felix refreshes his memory. Suddenly the entire look of the show is transformed into a squarish VHS-quality ad for a bathhouse, all smeared colors and visible tracking. It’d be indistinguishable from a period commercial if not for a shot of two men, one in a towel and one in a jock strap, caressing themselves as the narrator advertises the facility’s remarkable versatility.
The performances are literally shaky, from wavering accents to tremulous monologues, but the movie’s such an overwhelming weepie that they fit right in. Even the good times are susceptible to falling anvils. The opening birthday scene plays like a slash of the grim reaper’s scythe. The only light at the end of this tunnel is 30 years away. In 1985 there was an urgency galvanizing The Normal Heart. In 2014, the animating force is melodrama—to give us all a good cry over what’s happened, and then at the end remind us that HIV still infects over 6,000 people daily. The film deserves points for the reminder that this isn’t just our elders’ fight, but HBO’s The Normal Heart won’t inspire an audience to act up at all. If only it had less of Murphy’s inner Bruce and more of his inner Ned.