HBO's "The Normal Heart" aired Sunday, and for the network -- and director Ryan Murphy -- this is a considerable undertaking not without risk, for these times are, in some regards, more polarized than '85, when the Joseph Papp production opened at the Public Theater. (The role of Ned Weeks -- essentially the play's author Larry Kramer - was originated by "Midnight Express'" Brad Davis - Billy Hayes -- who died in 1991, after having contracted AIDS.)
"The Normal Heart," HBO, Sunday, 9
What it's about: A disease is ravaging the gay community in New York, and writer Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is told by Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) that sexual practices are likely tied to the emerging pandemic. And so begins his campaign - to convince the gay community, which equates sexual freedom with political identity, that it may be destroying itself, while also getting the rest or the New York establishment to pay attention, and proffer funds, which it is very reluctant to do.
With Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) and others, he creates the Gay Men's Health Crisis, but Weeks alienates almost everyone, except his own lover, Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a reporter at The New York Times, which ignores him as well. Based on the 1985 play by Larry Kramer, and directed by Ryan Murphy, this is Kramer's roman-à-clef.
My say: Reviving "The Normal Heart" couldn't have been an easy call for HBO or even Murphy, who is something of a kindred spirit with Kramer. Even in this moment of broad cultural acceptance of gay life and culture, there are many straight Americans who still see HIV-AIDS as a "gay cancer," or worse -- the Scourge They Brought Upon Themselves.
Viewed in that context, "The Normal Heart" isn't just a cultural artifact but as relevant now as ever, especially considering that 36 million people have died over the intervening years.
But this "Normal Heart" really has to be viewed in the context of 1985, when the pandemic was just underway, and the answers needed to urgent questions were still years in the future. Kramer, who went on to found Act Up, really was in a fury, and you can almost imagine him screaming at his word processor as he wrote.
That's the raw power of "The Normal Heart" -- and the single biggest problem confronting viewers. You at moments do feel like you're getting punched over an argument that was settled years ago - and for millions of Americans saved by antiretroviral drugs, providentially settled too.
Why so much anger now? Murphy and his cast navigate their way around this by locating the humanity in the polemics -- and "The Normal Heart" can be polemical, or, worse, can proceed with connect-the-dots narrative that feels occasionally TV-movie dated too.
"Heart," however, is largely Ned Weeks' story, and there's a moment early in the film that's clearly intended to rivet both the viewer's attention as much as his -- and succeeds. He is walking down a quiet path at dusk, when he comes upon a threesome -- a twisting, pulsating mass of human flesh that seems straight out of "Satyricon" (if "Satyricon" had been set on Fire Island, circa 1981).
Already critical of gay promiscuity, he finds this spectacle leaving him uncharacteristically speechless So this is the ultimate political expression of gay rights? Murphy plays this as a pivotal episode in the emerging portrait of the pre-radical, because if Weeks knows something is wrong -- terribly wrong -- why doesn't the rest of the world know as well?
That's the heart of "The Normal Heart," and what animates it, and ultimately turns it into something more than just another revival of a 30-year-old play. Weeks is a prophet who occasionally flays himself as much as others, because their world, after all, is his world too.
As superb as Ruffalo is, there are others who intermitently exceed him, at least in those few sharply drawn moments that underscore the furious urgency of the play (and movie): Joe Mantello, as Gay Men's Health Crisis staffer Mickey Marcus, who rages against Weeks and his own confusion. Or Parson's Boatwright, who collected and saved the Rolodex cards of the dead. Or Bomer's Turner, who is slowly consumed by the disease killing so many thousands of others. Or Roberts, as the wheelchair-bound Cassandra whose fury may actually exceed Weeks'.
The cast succeeds, and in the end, so does "Heart."
Bottom line: Excellent cast mitigates the flaws.