Being poor, I have self-limited my cable television subscription to the absolute bare minimum, leaving me with a sad little assortment of network reruns and god-awful reality shows. But every few months or so, one of the premium channels will offer a free weekend in order to get me hooked on their stuff. When that occurs, as it has this weekend with HBO, I can sometimes manage to snag a great program. That happened last night as I came across Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart just as it was beginning.
Kramer's barely fictional account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic originated as a stage play. It was performed on Broadway in 1985, and again in a revival in 2011. Barbra Streisand owned the rights to the material for several years but was unable to put together the financing to get it made into a feature film, and it was HBO who ultimately brought the project to life as a television film.
The Normal Heart is a superb vehicle for showcasing the talents of powerful actors. The main character, Ned Weeks, is based on Kramer himself and is brilliantly portrayed in the film by Mark Ruffalo. Weeks is a young man who is angry (savagely embittered) because government and the public are turning a blind eye to the deadly epidemic that is sweeping through the gay community. He helps to found an activist group, the Gay Men's Health Crisis (an actual group which Larry Kramer did assist in organizing), but gradually loses control of his group to the more deferential and politically correct members who feel they can better serve the cause by politely working through the system.
That is not Weeks' style. Mark Ruffalo, as Ned Weeks, is loud and confrontational - and has the best angry rants of the entire film.
Julia Roberts, as Emma, the wheelchair-bound doctor who works tirelessly to find the cause and the cure, is also angry. From her explosive confrontation with a television repairman who refuses to work on the television set of an AIDS patient, to her blistering attack on representatives of the National Institute of Health who won't recognize the severity of the problem and allocate sufficient funds to attack it, Roberts snarls and spits fire like an angry dragon.
The other exceptional performance in this gem of a television movie is by Matt Bomer who plays Felix, a New York Times reporter and Ned Weeks' boyfriend. Bomer's character discovers he has AIDS and is consumed by the disease during the course of the film. Production had to be halted for several weeks in order to give Bomer time to loose forty pounds to make him credible as a dying man with AIDS. Bomer's dying Felix is every bit as believable and powerful as Tom Hank's dying attorney in Philadelphia.
Two politicians are ravaged throughout the film. New York City's mayor, Ed Koch (who is identified in the movie as a gay male), and Ronald Reagan. Koch allegedly stood in the way of city funding or involvement in the crisis because he did not want to do anything that would attract attention to his private life. Reagan, the icon of America's conservatives, had no interest in serving a group that was traditionally vilified by his base. Reagan, as noted in the film, did not even utter the word "AIDS" until late 1985, more than three years into the epidemic that decimated a generation of some of America's most creative voices and shattered the lives of families across America and around the globe.
The Normal Heart is a powerful history lesson that recounts a very shameful time in America. Like all good drama, it stirs a range of emotions - not the least of which is anger. This is not a "feel good" movie," but it is one that will stick with you. The Normal Heart pleads for human decency. It is a story and a lesson that we all need to understand - and remember.