On the eve of Memorial Day – a day of remembrance for those lost in battle – HBO aired AIDS drama The Normal Heart, complete with an ad campaign that played to the idea that the early days of the AIDS crisis was a “war” (posters all over New York City read, “To win a war, you have to start one.”). The piece, which began its life three decades ago as a stark, confessional, furious play by AIDS activist Larry Kramer, arrived on screen with considerable fanfare thanks to the participation of Kramer (he wrote the screenplay), director Ryan Murphy (the controversial creative mind behind such buzzy shows as Glee, American Horror Story and Nip/Tuck), and Hollywood luminaries like Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, and Brad Pitt (whose Plan B production company produced the film). While the resulting film may itself be a bit scattershot, it is worth stepping back and remembering that The Normal Heart is, above all else, a memorial to the millions of men and women we have lost to the disease, and a tribute to those who were first to fight this battle. This is a story that needed and needs to be told.
Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks (a character based on Kramer himself), a man who feels out-of-step with the gay community’s politics and values yet is connected with nearly everyone in the neighborhood on a personal level. When he starts to notice commonalities in the deaths of gay men to a new form of “gay cancer”, he tries to organize the gay community to both stop the spread of the disease (of which they know virtually nothing) and to lobby both the local and federal government and the medical community for research funding, information, and support. He joins forces with polio survivor and pioneering AIDS researcher Dr. Emma Brookner (Roberts), handsome and charismatic former Green Beret Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons), a sassy but sweet hospital administrator, and tries to get a New York Times style writer named Felix Turner (Matt Bomer) to help sneak more stories of the strange new illness into the paper.
Weeks encounters opposition everywhere he turns, be it the assistant to Mayor Ed Koch (whom Weeks also insists is a closeted gay man), his own well-meaning but misguided brother, Ben (Alfred Molina), or the West Village gay community, which has just found its footing on a platform of sexual expression and is unwilling to take Dr. Brookner’s advice to “just cool it” until they learn more about how the disease is spread.
Much of Kramer’s original stage play is preserved, and makes for many of the movie’s best scenes. It’s monolog-heavy, with each of the central characters getting his or her big speech, and the text is forceful and unfussy. Parsons – whose character has little to do for much of the film other than stand on the sidelines looking forlorn – delivers a simple, quietly furious eulogy late in the film that brilliantly distills his character’s feeling of hopelessness. It’s one of the film’s best moments, paralleled nicely by a jaw-dropping scene where the character played by Joe Mantello (who played Ned in the recent Broadway revival, alongside Parsons) suffers a frenzied panic attack in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis office.
But there are many moments where the choices feel jarringly wrong. In the play, Bruce recounts in a harrowing monologue the story of his lover’s death while visiting his mother in Phoenix, and the humiliating lengths gone to in order to preserve his remains. Here we see the events in a rushed, clumsy flashback that robs much of the power from Bruce’s telling of the story. Many of the film’s somber moments feel precariously close to tipping into camp, and several sequences – a bizarre subway nightmare, a gay bathhouse commercial, and the bizarrely-edited opening scene where Jonathan Groff collapses on a Fire Island beach, to name a few – feel stylistically like they would be more at home on American Horror Story. Scenes that seem to function primarily as reminders of how garish the ’80s were feel out-of-sync with the human story that lives beneath the hideous outfits.
But Heart does dig deep to unearth lots of truths about gay politics, about shame, about internalized homophobia, and about the harsh realities of how the world responded, or failed to respond, to the early days of the crisis. And in the end, the film’s biggest success might be its central love story, which is anchored by solid, subtle, and committed performances by Bomer and Ruffalo. The film is able to take its time with these two men, and by the time tragedy inevitably strikes, their relationship feels lived-in and real. The film is loaded with so much loss that it’s almost numbing – but the ending still manages to cut to the bone.
With his tendency for melodrama and the delight he seems to take in making viewers uncomfortable, Ryan Murphy is an odd choice to bring this story to the screen – and the resulting film is uneven and at times heavy-handed. But he’s also the only guy in 30 years who could get the movie made at all. I’ll gladly take this flawed but occasionally beautiful Normal Heart over no Normal Heart at all.