So far, I’ve looked at a miniseries (When We Rise) and an HBO miniseries based on a play (Angels in America). Now, let’s look at an HBO movie based on a play: the 2014 adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart.
I had no idea what to expect with this movie when I first saw it. On the one hand, it has a promising cast led by Mark Ruffalo. On the other hand, it’s directed by Ryan Murphy. To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of Murphy. Or rather, I enjoy some of his work but had a difficult time imagining how his directorial style would work with a story about the AIDS epidemic. At the time when The Normal Heart came out, I was mainly familiar with Murphy from Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story, three shows that never pulled any punches when it came to being outrageous. But The Normal Heart surprised me and gave me a greater respect for Murphy’s range as a director.
The story, based on Larry Kramer’s autobiographical play, focuses on Ned Weeks (Ruffalo), a gay man who’s spurred to action in the early 80s after his friends begin to get sick with AIDS, then known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). Angered by the lack of action from the government and the lack of help in the medical community, Ned works with a doctor (Julia Roberts) to reach out to the gay male community to spread information about the health crisis. With a group of friends, he forms Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a community-based organization dedicated to advocacy and activism. Ned also tries to work with the media, and he falls in love with Felix (Matt Bomer), a gay news writer. But tensions rise when Ned’s friends and community disagree with his choice of approach.
The supporting cast is strong, particularly Taylor Kitsch and Jim Parsons (having only seen Parsons in The Big Bang Theory, I was impressed with his range).
But what really stands out about The Normal Heart is its look at the confusion and uncertainty in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Ned struggles to talk to the gay community about the possibility of HIV/AIDS being spread through sex when there is not yet proof of this being the case and the gay men in his community are hesitant to restrict their relationships when many of them have only just found the freedom to live and love without fear. It also shows the fear-based disregard of AIDS patients in the medical community, where doctors and nurses avoid contact with infected people as much as possible. In one scene, Kitsch’s character struggles to make arrangements for his partner’s body after the hospital throws it out like garbage.
The Normal Heart isn’t an easy movie to watch. Unlike Angels in America, it doesn’t have a hopeful ending or magical realism to balance out the horror of the AIDS epidemic. But it’s a movie I would never regret watching. It’s a touching look at a generation of men who aren’t remembered as well as they should be. It also indirectly gives some much-deserved attention to Larry Kramer, who was one of the cofounders of the real-life Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization as well instrumental in the creation of the advocacy group ACT UP. Like Ned Weeks, Kramer’s adversarial personality sometimes put him in conflict with others in the movement. But regardless of your opinion about Kramer’s methods, his role in HIV/AIDS activism deserves recognition.