HBO’s searing adaptation of playwright Larry Kramer’s 1985 stage play “The Normal Heart,” directed by Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), offers a stinging political indictment of the shameful attitudes toward gay men’s health in the 1980s and a touching evocation of the human losses suffered due to HIV-AIDS. And the film boasts winning, Emmy-bait performances all around.
“The Normal Heart” begins somewhat shakily as Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) travels to Fire Island for a summer weekend with friends. He’s not entirely comfortable there because he previously wrote a book whose portrayal of gay men on Fire Island rankled some.
“All I said was having so much sex makes finding love impossible,” Ned says in his own defense.
In these early scenes, Craig (Jonathan Groff, “Looking”), the lover of Ned’s closeted investment banker friend Bruce (Taylor Kitsch, “Friday Night Lights”), coughs and falls down on the beach. It’s overly melodramatic foreshadowing and in the scenes that follow — Ned reads about this newfound “gay cancer” in The New York Times on the ferry back from Fire Island, the early meetings that will lead to the establishment of Gay Men’s Health Crisis — “The Normal Heart” sets up a bit of a “this happened, then this happened” rhythm that does not bode well.
But just as quickly, the film gets this historical crutch out of its system and begins to explore in greater depth the characters and their relationships, particularly the love loner Ned finds with journalist Felix (2000 Carnegie Mellon University grad Matt Bomer, “White Collar”).
With the help of polio-stricken, brusque Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), Ned tries to galvanize gay support for promoting the awareness of HIV-AIDS (before the disease even had that name) but finds he’s shouting into the wind. Even Ned is daunted at the outset.
“You realize you’re talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity as their principle political agenda? How do you deal with that?” Ned asks Emma after she says he can help by telling gay men to stop having sex.
“Tell them they may die,” she replies.
“They think sex is all they have,” Ned responds, sounding momentarily defeated.
Clearly there are ways “The Normal Heart” is a product of its time — the film deserves creative points for beginning with the HBO logo from the 1980s — but it’s also a necessary reminder of the toll HIV-AIDS can take, particularly for a new generation of young men for whom safe sex is no longer the almost mandatory mainstream approach that it was in the late 1980s and 1990s. (A scene that may resonate more with gay youth today features a seemingly anachronistic pseudo-wedding of two gay men when one is on his deathbed.)
While “The Normal Heart” tracks chronologically the responses to the growing HIV-AIDS crisis, the film’s true focus remains on Ned. Whether he’s challenging his brother (Alfred Molina) to accept him as his equal or embarrassing GMHC figurehead Bruce with his polemical political declarations, the film is all about Ned’s passions.
The performances — including from co-star Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) — are all-around terrific with Ms. Roberts a shoe-in for an Emmy nomination for a scene where her character delivers a fiery denunciation of a National Institutes of Health representative who refuses to fund her HIV-AIDS studies.
There are a few fleeting sex scenes but far more intimate are scenes of tender care and heartbreaking fights between Ned and Felix after Felix begins to show symptoms of the disease. These moments will make the normal hearts of viewers beat a little faster and encourage tears to flow more freely as the film approaches its emotional peak.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.