There’s a moment in “The Normal Heart” when Matt Bomer realizes the severity of his illness. His eyes widen, fear falls over his face and, instantly, you understand how devastating an AIDS diagnosis was.
Written during the heat of the crisis, the story shows how unwilling politicians and other leaders were to save lives and stop the epidemic. Even those closest to the situation didn’t want to get involved.
And yet Larry Kramer (who wrote the play upon which the HBO film is based) wasn’t afraid to get in the face of those who could help. His role – played by a reverent Mark Ruffalo – is the hub of the story, showing how it spiraled and how he, personally, was affected.
Taking his quest seriously, Ruffalo’s Ned Weeks isn’t afraid to confront anyone. He offends gays and straights alike, protests, marches, sits in. He raises money and consciousness. Still, it never seems like enough.
Director Ryan Murphy captures the frustration nicely. From Weeks, he’s able to tell others’ stories and show how this wasn’t just a gay disease but an American problem.
Through Weeks and his fellow crusaders, we see all sorts of people pulled into the fray. Taylor Kitsch plays a closeted soldier; Jim Parsons is a snappy organizer. Julia Roberts turns up as a physician able to sound the warning bell.
Together, they’re united in a common cause.
Ruffalo, though, is the magnet, attracting everyone.
When his boyfriend – played by Bomer – is diagnosed as HIV positive the reality of it all hits home. Ruffalo and Bomer don’t settle for stereotypes. They become everyone’s brothers, friends, lovers. As a result, “Normal Heart” beats louder and opens us up to see the other stories. Murphy has done a magnificent job expanding this and making it more than the screed that once greeted theater audiences.
He shows the days of free love; he covers the nights of lonely fear. And, in the process, gets the kinds of performances that should be recognized come Emmy time.
Ruffalo is just the tour guide mainstream audiences need to pull them in. Bomer is the heart-tugger who will make them feel the pain.
Roberts, too, overcomes her celebrity and creates a no-nonsense voice of reason who knows what early detection can mean to an unsuspecting populace.
While “Normal Heart” has moments that will make everyone weep – no matter where you fall on any of the social issue debates – it doesn’t pander for the tears. They’re earned and they linger.
The film’s message does, too. “The Normal Heart,” which probably wouldn’t have attracted a large audience on film, should on television. Like “Behind the Candelabra,” its action isn’t measured in car chases and explosions. It’s charted in the lives it touches.