Writers are given one great story to tell.
The facts already seem like a tale out of faraway history. A mysterious plague stalks the land, slaughtering half of those who catch it, while craven officials refuse to acknowledge its existence and a terrified minority population is refused help even as they are dying. When AIDS first began striking New York’s gay male population in 1981, the level of accepted homophobia in American society was, even just a few decades later, difficult to comprehend. Doctors trained to handle the deadliest diseases refused to even touch patients. The medical establishment paid scant attention to a devastating epidemic simply because its first victims were gay. Watching Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of The Normal Heart is to be taken back to a time when prejudice didn’t just cost people their dignity, it robbed some of them of their lives.
Since it was first performed in 1985, Kramer’s play has stood as the definitive fictional account of the battle to smash both the disease and the prejudices it highlighted. That feat has been one of its greatest virtues, but also one of its weaknesses. Its arc is swift and the stakes incredible; however, Kramer’s gifts as polemicist have a tendency to outshine his abilities as a playwright. Most of the major characters are barely veiled variations on critical real-life players in the drama, leaving some stranded in the story merely as mouthpieces for one point of view or another. But these quibbles are only just that; minor flaws in a work whose uncompromising rage against inhumanity has rarely been equaled. It’s a bulldozer of a play that wants to leave you devastated and usually succeeds. That this film doesn’t leave you gasping for air is more testament to Murphy’s surface approach than any diminution of the play’s strengths.
The Kramer stand-in is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo). He’s a grumpy writer whose book about gay culture made him something of a pariah in a group so violently marginalized that critiques from within were often seen as traitorous. Ned becomes aware of the “gay cancer” spreading through the community after a close friend suddenly dies. His calls to stop one-night-stand culture as a safety measure is seen as more hysteria from the writer who had labeled promiscuity many gay men’s “singular political agenda”. (Kramer, who wrote this adaptation, doesn’t mince words on this topic, but he does give voice to the countervailing narrative: that by exercising sexual freedom, gay men were taking control of at least one part of their heavily-circumscribed lives.) Spurred on by the dozens of friends being lost to the disease, he helps organize Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the country’s first AIDS organization, and keeps widening his circle of enemies.
Ned’s partner in anger is Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), the wheelchair-bound doctor who is the only medical professional in town treating the afflicted. As the disease spreads with terrifying and baffling speed, Emma is left grasping at clues to its causes. But while too many others plug their heads in the sand, Emma and Ned act like conspirators in a campaign to wake up the gays who are at risk, and the straight world which doesn’t seem to care. So they just keep finding new ways to yell and new people to yell at, whether it’s the closeted gay mayor who won’t deign to speak to them or his fellow organizers who think a quieter approach is best. There’s no question which tack the play prefers.
Murphy is an emotional filmmaker, sometimes to a fault. He keeps the film crackling with visual energy, distractingly so for such a somber story. On a more positive note, he makes sure to stock the film with performers trusted to channel the characters’ exhaustion and terror which keep exploding in shredded-nerve soliloquies. Theater director Joe Mantello (who also played Ned on Broadway) has one of the more devastating of these eruptions, which manages to encompass all of the era’s fear and uncertainty in a few stark paragraphs.
For her part, Roberts plugs effectively into the same raspy, unbridled frustration at life that energized her spiky performance in August: Osage County. But while Ruffalo is fully engaged in the role, he retains too much of his usual self-effacing charm to truly play a fury-choked outsider like Ned.
The problem with Ruffalo’s performance is ultimately that of the film itself. It would take a much less skilled director than Murphy—whose eager-to-please films have managed to retain a certain level of dignity that alludes his trashier and emotionally cheap TV offerings—to cripple Kramer’s play. Without a volcanic enough presence at its core, though the film feels more scattered than it should, trying to cover more territory than there is room for.
It’s perhaps a sign of progress that all through the standard-issue making-of documentary that’s the DVD edition’s only extra—a hard-to-understand decision, given the wealth of documentary material that could easily have been included—there is one thing that we don’t hear. Not a single one of the straight male actors playing gay characters says a single word about what that was like. Not so long ago, that would have been topic number two, right after the horror of AIDS: what was it like to kiss a man? At the very least, by the time The Normal Heart finally came to a paid-cable channel, that question didn’t seem even worth asking anymore.