Watching Ryan Murphy's HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart isn't always easy, but there are reasons you should watch — millions of them, in fact.
You should watch the 132-minute film, premiering Sunday, because The Normal Heart seethes with rage, truth and love in every performance by an A-list cast. You should watch because Larry Kramer's play is so much more than an agitprop relic from the early years of AIDS; it is a great play that has become an even greater television film.
Kramer, one of the founders of the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City, first saw his play performed in 1985. At the time, it was considered an important work but viewed more in terms of its advocacy than as great theater. The play made enough of an impact to spark a discussion of adapting it for film or TV, but nothing happened for nearly 30 years.
One reason was doubt that a theatrical film about gay men dying of AIDS could make money. Another was the growing misperception that AIDS was no longer the public health and political issue it was in the years before medical advances made it possible to live with the virus.
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Murphy clearly saw that The Normal Heart was not trapped in the amber of a few brief years in the early 1980s. His film, with an adaptation by Kramer, captures the conflicting attitudes and emotions in New York's gay community as indifference and denial turned to panic, anger and despair, but it also recognizes that The Normal Heart tells a human story far beyond its subject matter and setting.
In 1980 and '81, a few cases of a previously unknown disease began popping up in New York among gay men. News stories about the illness were ignored or buried by most newspapers, making them easy to overlook, especially by gay men, who had emerged from the sexual "wars" of the '60s and '70s believing not only that they had a right to be loud and proud, but that expressing their sexuality was important.
Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is an abrasive activist/writer who tries to rally gay men toward awareness of the growing health crisis and lobbies in vain for The New York Times to give the issue appropriate coverage.
Soon enough, the situation is impossible for gay men to ignore. When Ned urges sexual abstinence as a way to stop the spread of the so-called "gay cancer," he might as well be advocating a mass return to the closet.
He finds a powerful ally in Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), whose childhood battle with polio has left her in a wheelchair but has taught her that health crises demand urgent, focused response.
As Ned steps up pressure on the Times, he meets a reporter named Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), who becomes his lover.
Murphy's film captures so much about this moment in history, not the least of which is how AIDS would politicize gay men and, in many ways, lay the groundwork for the growing acceptance of LGBT people in this century.
Murphy's direction is superb, especially in the performances he elicits.
Ruffalo seethes with rage and impatience.
With this single performance, Bomer handily demonstrates he is more than a pretty face. He begins as the Matt Bomer we know from White Collar: handsome, serene, seemingly unflappable. As his body shrinks and his eyes and cheekbones become sunken, we feel Felix working so hard to maintain that outer serenity, to mask the terror and growing hopelessness inside him. It is a performance of singular power and beautifully modulated complexity.
Others of note? That would include the entire cast: Jonathan Groff as Craig, felled by illness before anyone knows what hit him; Taylor Kitsch as serial monogamist Bruce Niles, an investment banker who becomes the first president of the Gay Men's Health Crisis; Jim Parsons as sweet-natured Tommy Boatwright, quietly tracking the tragic progress of AIDS through his Rolodex cards. Alfred Molina is memorable as Ned's lawyer brother; stage director Joe Mantello delivers a soliloquy of anger that becomes a dramatic fulcrum in the play; and Roberts, sour, steely, unglamorous, makes Emma the cold-hard-facts foundation of the play.
Artists often respond to cataclysmic moments in history, but only a relative few works transcend their own eras to a level of timeless greatness. In the 33 years since AIDS was identified, novels such as Dale Peck's Martin and John and Bill T. Jones' Still/Here and the play and film of Tony Kushner's Angels in America occupy a different tier than, say, the film Longtime Companion. It isn't just that the more memorable works transcend their time; it's that they are first great works of art and, as such, provide enduring emotional and thematic touchstones to any viewer, reader or listener.
The Normal Heart belongs among those great works, as both a play and now as an unforgettable television film. It is emotionally raw, harrowing and a thing of such singular horrific beauty, it will move you, exhaust you and, almost paradoxically, thrill you at the heights television drama can attain.