Superb HBO update of ‘The Normal Heart’ focuses on emotional toll of AIDS in early ’80s

05/24/2014 9:12 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

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 tonight, because “The Normal Heart” seethes with rage, truth and love in every single 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 beome 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 for nearly 30 years, nothing happened.

Ryan Murphy clearly saw that “The Normal Heart” was not trapped in the amber of a few brief years in the early 1980s. His film captures the conflicting attitudes and emotions in the New York 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 both its subject matter and the time in which it is set.

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 new illness were either ignored or buried by most media, making them easy to overlook, especially by gay men, who had emerged from the sexual “wars” of the ’60’s and ’70’s believing not only that they had a right to be loud and proud, but that expressing their sexuality was as important as saying aloud, “I’m gay.”

Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is an abrasive activist-slash-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, although the straight world would do its damnedest for several years. When Ned urges sexual abstinence as a way of stopping the spread of the so-called “gay cancer,” he may as well be advocating a mass return to the closet by the entire gay population of New York.

He finds a powerful ally in Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), whose childhood battle with polio has left her in a wheelchair as an adult but has also taught her that health crises demand urgent and focused response.

As Ned steps up pressure on the Times, he meets a lifestyle writer for the paper named Felix Turner (Matt Bomer, “White Collar”) 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 our own century.

Although out in some ways, some of the characters in “The Normal Heart” are still living double lives, such as Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch, “Lone Survivor”), an investment banker who becomes the first president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Ned continues to press GMHC toward greater urgency and action, to the point where he is viewed as more harmful than helpful and is expelled from the group.

Ned is motivated not only because he believes in the ACT-Up battle cry “silence equals death,” but for personal reasons as well: Felix is infected. Feeling as helpless as Ned, we watch as Felix grows more gaunt, his life draining slowly but inevitably away.

It’s impossible not to be moved by the sense of anger and frustration that infuses “The Normal Heart,” but Kramer’s screenplay corrects the play’s imbalance between political issues and the humanity of the characters. Because of that, the play has developed an even more universal appeal as a television film. Anyone who has sat at the bedside to hold the hand of a loved one whose life is slipping away, can identify with the abyss of pain and helplessness.

Where to watch

“The Normal Heart” debuts at 8 tonight on HBO.

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