The Normal Heart is a 2014 American drama television film directed by Ryan Murphy and written by Larry Kramer, based on Kramer’s largely autobiographical 1985 play of same name. The film stars Mark Ruffalo, Jonathan Groff, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Joe Mantello, and Julia Roberts.
I usually find that when a movie has an all-start cast, you can’t expect much from it because all of the actors compete for the spotlight. This movie wasn’t like that. It largely focuses on Mark Ruffalo’s character Ned Weeks, and the cast surrounding him make the movie sublime.
The film depicts the rise of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984, as seen through the eyes of writer/activist Ned Weeks, the founder of a prominent HIV advocacy group. Weeks prefers public confrontations to the calmer, more private strategies favored by his associates, friends, and closeted lover Felix Turner (Bomer). Their differences of opinion lead to arguments that threaten to undermine their shared goals.
The play and film are based on true events and real people. After most performances of the 2011 revival of The Normal Heart, Kramer personally passed out a dramaturgical flyer detailing some of the real stories behind the play’s characters. Kramer wrote that the character “Bruce” was based on Paul Popham, the president of the GMHC from 1981 until 1985; “Tommy” was based on Rodger McFarlane, who was executive director of GMHC and a founding member of ACT UP and Broadway Cares; and “Emma’ was modeled after Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who treated some of the first New York cases of what was later known as AIDS. Like “Ned,” Kramer himself helped to found several AIDS-activism groups, including Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and indeed experienced personal conflict with his lawyer brother, Arthur.
This is a truly powerful movie and people need to see it. Kramer’s furious inveighing against a government that seemed content to let gay men die by the thousands has plenty of bite left in it nearly 30 years later. In many ways, The Normal Heart has become an entirely necessary historical document, giving full-bodied life and spirit to a piece of recent history that’s all too often forgotten in our progressive, gay marriage-sanctifying present. The horrors of the play’s generation must be remembered, not just because H.I.V.-infection rates among young people are troublingly on the rise in this country, but because these stories crucially remind us how we got where we are now, how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. Murphy gets out of the way of this message, filming from a respectable distance as Kramer’s words flare and burn. But this is also an intimate movie, close and textured, made all the more so by the fine cast.
I hope that lots of people watch this film, as lots of people seemed to watch HBO’s similarly themed masterpiece Angels in America ten years ago. Because it’s a good movie, and because it roars with the fury of many ghosts who didn’t have to be ghosts. If only more people had said something, done something. At least Larry Kramer and others like him did, and The Normal Heart is a fine accounting of that noble history.