HBO TV movie “The Normal Heart” is frequently blatant in its melodramatic approach, but there is a big heart palpitating with emotional truths inside its story, and we cannot ignore what it wants to tell us. We can clearly see how it is going to pull the strings for its dramatic effects, but there is also sincerity and honesty behind its manipulation, and it ultimately becomes more resonating than expected while looking at anger, frustration, fear, pain, and sadness from its characters struggling with their dark, difficult time.
It is 1981, and everything looks fine and beautiful to Ned Weeks(Mark Ruffalo) and his fellow gay friends. Riding on the sex culture revolution during that time, they can be more opened about their sexuality than before, and we see these guys and other gays having a big fun with their beach meeting where nearly everyone is ready to enjoy their hedonistic freedom. While there is a big, exciting dance time during which everyone is flirting with each other, we also get a brief moment of group sex in a nearby forest, and even Ned, who is relatively shy and introverted compared to his friends, cannot say no to this liberating mood in the end.
But a very bad news is approaching to them as they enjoy their days of heaven. Craig(Jonathan Groff), a current lover of Bruce Niles(Taylor Kitsch), suddenly collapses on the ground on one day, and he becomes sicker day by day. Ned comes across a New York Times article on the unprecedented cancer cases observed from 41 gay patients, and that leads him to Dr. Emma Brookner(Julia Roberts), one of the first doctors who begin to notice a certain unknown disease being spread around her gay patients.
We all know that this is the first grim chapter of the AIDS epidemic in US during the 1980s, and the movie directly stares at the horror of this disease with no pretension. We see those skin lesions and the other medical problems resulted from the destruction of immune system due to HIV virus infection, and that is just the start of long, painful death. Close friends and acquaintances around Ned and Bruce become AIDS patients one by one as the time goes by, and they feel scared and helpless in front of this new disease while not knowing how to fight against it for their survival.
Ned, Bruce, and their friends including Tommy Boatwright(Jim Parsons) and Mickey Marcus(Joe Mantello) set up their community organization to prevent the spread of AIDS, but their organization, Gay Men’s Health Crisis(GMHC), is not as successful as they want, and the government officials are not willing to help them mainly because of their prejudice and ignorance. As AIDS is labelled as a gay-related disease with no particular understanding of its cause or its infection route, the prejudice against gay people becomes more intensified as a result, and there is a particularly heartbreaking moment when a young dying AIDS patient is denied of his rights even after his tragic death.
While they stick together at first for their common goal, Ned frequently clashes with his colleagues on how they should persuade others to help them. Ned thinks they should use more direct and aggressive tactics for their crisis getting recognized in public, but Bruce and others prefer more tactful ways of approaching to the people who can help studying and preventing AIDS. Ned also thinks they should be more opened about their sexuality, but not many of his friends are willing to come out of their closet, mainly because they are afraid of losing their social positions.
This inner conflict causes lots of discords between Ned and others in GMHC as everyone is more frustrated with the slow response from the US government. Dr. Brookner tries to get the grant for her research on AIDS from the National Institutes of Health, but her proposal is unfairly rejected, and she cannot help but explode with anger and frustration against her system at one point. As powerfully shown in Oscar-nominated documentary film “How to Survive a Plague”(2012), it took a lot more time for the AIDS activists during that time to get better chances of survival while fighting against prejudice and incompetence, and, as watching the epilogue of “The Normal Heart”, I was reminded again of how ignorantly the Reagan administration mishandled the AIDS epidemic which took away so many precious lives at its height.
The director Ryan Murphy, the co-creator of TV series “Glee” and “American Horror Story”, sometimes tries a little too hard to energize the story(I find the handheld camera approach in several scenes a bit distracting, for example), but he draws a number of strong performances from the cast, which are the emotional anchor for us to hold onto the episodic narrative of his movie. The adapted screenplay by Larry Kramer, which is based on Kramer’s own acclaimed stage play, feels theatrical especially when the characters pour out their feelings and thoughts on the screen, but these moments ring true thanks to Kramer’s good writing, and the actors elevate them into many powerful scenes to behold.
While Mark Ruffalo, who will probably win an Emmy for this movie, deftly swings between righteous anger and gentle sensitivity without any single misstep in his superb performance, the supporting performers surrounding him have each own moments to shine. While Julia Roberts gets another nice chance to utilize her talent after her recent Oscar-nominated turn in “August: Osage County”(2013), Alfred Molina has a couple of wonderful scenes as Ned’s lawyer brother who has his own prejudice to overcome despite his deep affection toward his little brother. He does care about Ned, but he does not think his brother is ‘normal’, and Molina and Ruffalo effectively convey to us the complex relationship between them during their scenes. Although they look relatively less confident, Taylor Kitsch and Jim Parsons are adequately cast in their respective roles, and Joe Mantello has a showstopper moment when his character finally reaches to the breaking point and then explodes into a frantic monologue. In the case of Matt Bomer, who lost 40 pounds(18-kg) for some of his scenes, he is simply devastating as Ned’s young partner, and he and Ruffalo are superlative in their harrowing and touching portrayal of two lovers painfully going through their losing battle against the disease which is going to separate them apart sooner or later.
Like “Longtime Companion”(1989) and “Dallas Buyers Club”(2013), “The Normal Heart” tells us a lot about that gloomy era when things looked quite hopeless to many people. Things are better now as AIDS becomes a treatable disease and several civil rights of sexual minorities are legally recognized, but I think we need to be reminded of how difficult it was for them to begin that progress, and the movie did its job with considerable emotional effects to linger on us.