In the most arresting moment from the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, playwright and activist Larry Kramer observes the squabbling between the members of ACT UP, a coalition that pressed for more government testing of drugs for AIDS victims. In the middle of the shouting, Kramer stands up and yells, with vitriol, “Plague! We are in the middle of a plague!” Instantly, the furor in the room subsides.
Kramer was known as a fierce, furious, iconoclastic personality who had been fighting on behalf of the virus originally deemed the “gay cancer” in the early 1980s. His views were far from mainstream, and although his rage-filled attacks toward government on evening talk shows inflamed an audience, he soldiered on. Kramer’s most remarkable artistic achievement was his 1985 Off-Broadway play, The Normal Heart, which was as angry and sanctimonious as him.
Now, The Normal Heart is a powerfully acted and fiercely polemical drama that aired on HBO on May 25. (It is the second gay-themed movie in a row to premiere on Memorial Day weekend on the cable network, after 2013’s Behind the Candelabra.) To bring his play to film form, Kramer wrote the screenplay and expanded the story for an extra 30 minutes. Even if The Normal Heart lacks the urgency of the show when it first premiered – in the mid-1980s, Regan had not yet mentioned the AIDS virus, despite the tens of thousands of deaths from the disease by that year – it is still a moving and infuriating drama.
It is well known that Kramer’s play is quasi-autobiographical. The character of Ned Weeks, who Mark Ruffalo portrays in the film adaptation, is a Kramer surrogate, short-tempered and passionate. When the film opens in 1981, he is visiting a gay slice of paradise. Nude men tan on poolside chairs and engage in orgies on the docks of the beach. Ned is turned off by the excessive sex he sees, explaining to one character that the promiscuity of proud gay men makes love something that is hard to find.
However, during his stay on the beachside all-male oasis, a young man named Craig Donner (Frozen’s Jonathan Groff) collapses in the sun. When he blows his birthday candles in the next scene, Craig has a hard time extinguishing them through his coughs. Weeks later, he is dead, one of the first victims of the AIDS virus. Ned visits his doctor, sardonic polio sufferer Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), who tells him that she keeps seeing more men with purple splotches on their skin come into her office. “I’ve never seen or heard anything like this,” she says, adding that this virus only seems to be happening in gay men. However, when Ned and Dr. Brookner organize a meeting to bring awareness to New York’s lively gay community, the message for gay men to stop having sex is ignored.
Failing to preach to his choir, Ned turns to activism and forms the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a small advocacy group hoping to push government into funding research that may be able to find a cure for this spreading disease. In opposition to the iconoclastic Ned is Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), a handsome but closeted homosexual who can use his charm to entice followers to join the group. Ned also tries to get New York Times columnist Felix Turner (Matt Bomer) to give the virus some news coverage. Felix laments that it would be hard to print a story about the disease in its infancy, but soon starts seeing Ned. In the meantime, Ned sees little traction: the mayor’s office does not return his calls and his wealthy lawyer brother Ben (Alfred Molina) hesitates to donate a dime.
The Normal Heart is not just an essential document of a mostly forgotten chapter of modern American history, but offers many career-best performances. At the helm is Ruffalo, who despite playing The Incredible Hulk has never been more acerbically angry. The role gives the actor the opportunity to shout in derision, but it is far from a boisterous portrayal. His reaction to the quickly shifting tide of disease around him, which he swallows up with a pained look that rests almost permanently on his furrowed face, spurs to venomous disgust when others in his social group are content to keep quiet and take a more subtle approach. It is a raw and unnerving performance, with Ruffalo capturing Ned’s (and Kramer’s) volcanic energy and capacity for grief.
Bomer and Kitsch, two pretty young actors whose best roles have been on TV (White Collar and Friday Night Lights), are excellent as Weeks’ affectionate but emotionally affected gay pals. Another television star, Jim Parsons, plays Tommy Boatwright, a supporting player of the advocacy group who has the gumption but is trying to find the guts to raise awareness. (Parsons also played the role in a Tony-winning 2011 revival.) Except for a gruelling, gripping funeral speech, where he comments about how he saves the Rolodex cards of his friends who die, Parsons is too stoic for this tempest.
Meanwhile, Roberts has never been so bitter on the screen, a performance that makes her swallow her A-list pride and grow a face and voice of steel, getting more enraged as the cases pile up. The biggest scene-stealer, however, is Joe Mantello, a Tony-winning director and actor who rarely appears on film (he did play Ned in the 2011 revival, though). Mantello grabs the mic as Mickey Marcus in one scene and launches into a seething, riveting speech that shakes Ned to the core, after months of stagnant process for the group.
The Normal Heart is an angry and determined film about a gay subject, so it is little surprise that Ryan Murphy (the polarizing creator of Glee and American Horror Story) directs. What he lacks in filmmaking finesse – the fragmented editing during the various collapses of the AIDS-inflicted characters is too busy and distracts from the serious subject matter – he gains in bringing measured performances from the ensemble. Sometimes the anger comes out in the choppy editing, when it should be coming from the writing and performances. Still, the pacing rarely lags, and despite the various high-pitched monologues from Ned and company, Murphy also knows when to tone it down and move the audience. When the camera finally rests on the performances, The Normal Heart becomes riveting.
In the film’s finest scene, during an AIDS fundraiser, Murphy focuses on a twirling, shimmering disco ball as gay couples dance beneath it. Groups of men bustle out on the floor, while sick people stand to the side, looking solid despite the knowledge that the last remnants of their life are slipping away. When Murphy focuses on the kaleidoscopic rainbow of the disco ball, the energy and the emotion – those dancing and those watching on the side – blend together. A choir’s song soars through the air in this moment, bringing weight to what has been a pointed drama so far.
The Normal Heart brandishes its heart on its sleeve. It is also the fourth major film in four years – after the docs We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague, and the Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club – to focus on the difficult early days of the AIDS crisis. As incendiary and emotionally devastating as the subject matter is, Murphy’s adaptation pales somewhat in comparison with the fire of Plague and the poignancy of We Were Here. Regardless, the film looks at the heyday of the epidemic with astounding clarity, if not exactly the explosive urgency that Kramer’s play had in the mid-1980s.
The Normal Heart is not as powerful as Kramer’s incendiary play, but it is still too passionate and potently acted to miss.