In Choire Sicha’s book Very Recent History, set among a group of young, mostly gay men in New York City in 2009, there’s a passage that describes the generational hole in the gay community, and the city, and the world, left by HIV/AIDS:
The Normal Heart, airing May 25 on HBO, is the story of that hole: how it opened, what it claimed, the rage and tears it took to keep it from swallowing even more people. When it debuted in 1985 as a stage play by activist Larry Kramer, it was an alarm bell for a fire fully blazing, demanding that people pay attention and unresponsive governments fight the epidemic. Now set on film by director Ryan Murphy (and Kramer, adapting his own play), after the disease his been dampened if not eliminated, it’s history–but an insistent, furious history, demanding that it not be shelved and forgotten, lest it repeat.
The film opens, like a disaster movie, on the last moments before calamity strikes: in 1981, on Fire Island, whose habitués are enjoying a sun-drenched weekend of sexual freedom. The sun slicks men’s toned flesh; Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” plays from a speaker on the beach. Then a seemingly healthy young man (Jonathan Groff) collapses in the surf. As the “gay cancer” spreads, perplexing the medical and gay communities, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), an activist writer much like Kramer himself, meets with Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), who suspects the “cancer” is sexually transmitted. “Where’s this big mouth I hear you’ve got?” she asks him. “Is big mouth a symptom?” he retorts. “No,” she says. “It’s the cure.”
It’s a medicine that no one much wants to swallow, however–not the national and New York City government, slow to devote resources to the epidemic, nor leading gay organizations, who have made sexual freedom part of their identity and don’t want to hear a message of abstinence because “fucking can kill you.” Weeks is used to being an irritant; he already made himself unpopular with a novel that argued to gay hedonists that “having so much sex makes finding love impossible.” (The analogue here is Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots.) Now he’s an irritant with a cause, a hammer in a world full of nails, and Ruffalo plays him with blunt, barking energy.
Beyond portraying the dawning horror of AIDS, this is a story broadly about activism and what it takes to make change. Working inside the system or outside the system? Moderation or militancy? Raising sympathy or raising hell? Kramer’s script, true to his and Weeks’ philosophy, takes sides, refusing to on-the-other-hand the story as Weeks butts up against the moderate likes of Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) a closeted war veteran chosen to be the palatable face of AIDS activism. Weeks may have a general predisposition to be That Guy–the one who yells, discomfits, outs people, triggers Godwin’s Law–but he also, in the light of history, has a damn urgent reason. A lot of people are dying, and a lot of people would rather think about something else.
The story of a provocateur is a good fit for Murphy, whose TV series (Glee, American Horror Story) treat provocation like a moral imperative; if something is worth saying, it’s worth saying with fireworks and maybe a musical number. Murphy’s direction here isn’t ostentatious or even especially distinctive (one exception is a flashback to the ’70s bathhouse era, shot in the style of a late-night adult-TV ad). But it’s unflinching: one sequence, depicting the indignities of an AIDS victim’s last hours alive–and first hours dead, wheeled to a hospital alley in a garbage bag–makes the poisonous combination of homophobia and fear raw and real. The film’s philosophical and visual mission is to make you look longer than you might–at seizures, at Karposi’s lesions, at fights that drag into ugly, anguished pathos.
At the same time, it’s a love story, between Weeks and New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), whose relationship begins testy, grows sexy, and–as Felix contracts AIDS himself–becomes tender and tragic. (A scene in which Ned helps Felix shower after a bad episode heartbreakingly parallels their early, lusty encounter in the bathhouse.)
The Normal Heart is not a nuanced film; it would probably be a betrayal of the material to turn it into one. Compared with, say, Angels in America (memorably adapted for HBO a decade ago), there’s not much effort to make the antagonists three-dimensional; the film doesn’t much balance the merits of Weeks’ gay-community opponents’ arguments nor–given the story’s early-’80s timeframe–explore what results Weeks’ tactics yielded in the long run. It’s a first draft told by a first responder, with no time for niceties. But it is deepened and rounded out by some remarkable supporting performances, especially a fantastic Jim Parsons as Tommy, a warmhearted activist volunteer. As he speaks at a friend’s memorial–remembering the many, many other friends he’s memorialized–his kindly optimism gives way to despair at the waste of lives and inaction of the larger society, and it is devastating: “They just don’t like us.”
This movie’s answer is that this crisis, this moment, demanded people like Weeks, who didn’t much care if anyone liked him. The first time this story was told on stage, it was–to borrow the slogan of the group Kramer later helped found–a cry to act up and fight back. Some 30 years later, this movie–strident, passionate, frenetic, and aching–is a reminder, as Memorial Day weekend begins the summer, of all those empty spots the plague left on the beach.