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Seitz: HBO’s Messy, Powerful The Normal Heart Rages Against AIDS Amnesia

Ryan Murphy's adaptation of The Normal Heart is set in the past, but not safely in the past. This in itself is remarkable. The film's source material, Larry Kramer's play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, premiered in 1985 and was revived on Broadway in 2011. This HBO version — which stars Mark Ruffalo as a Ned Weeks, a Larry Kramer–like character raging against state-sponsored neglect and passive-aggressive bigotry — arrives after nearly three decades of failed attempts to adapt it to film.

Despite the elapsed years, nothing about the movie feels dated, neutered, or "official." Kramer's play was theater, but it was also journalism and agitprop. Kramer co-founded the activist organization Gay Men's Health Crisis during a meeting at his apartment, to raise awareness and money to battle the epidemic at a time when nearly everyone preferred not to publicly discuss it. For all its poetry and vitality, the play was an extension of that rabble-rousing mission. The film has poetry and vitality, too, and its greatest virtue is that it seems not to give a damn if you approve of any of its creative choices as long as you connect with it emotionally and intellectually. It rips Kramer's work out of the cocoon of received wisdom that might have otherwise entombed it by making it seem safe or "official." It's an account of life during an epidemic that might have been less brutal, or at least more dignified, had public officials behaved with more bravery, honesty, and compassion. It aims to rattle viewer complacency and re-create the sorrow, horror, and outrage of the early '80s, when gay men were dying in droves after acquiring HIV and the dominant culture wrung its hands or folded its arms, with the ugliest among them (some of whom were employed by President Ronald Reagan's administration) writing off mass death as the byproduct of poor lifestyle choices.

The Normal Heart was righteously pissed about this all when it first hit New York floorboards, just four years after the first cases were initially labeled as "gay cancer" and "Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease." The HBO film is pissed, too, but for different reasons. It seems angered by the possibility that this period might recede in the national consciousness or (just as bad) be distorted or whitewashed, by conservatives who want to deify Reagan and his people and excuse their inaction in the face of AIDS, or by straight liberals or closeted gay men who stuck their heads in the sand back then instead of saying or doing something that might've made a difference. At its best, the movie has the propulsive wildness of a late-'80s or early-'90s feature by Oliver Stone or Spike Lee. It comes out swinging with both fists, wildly. It's the anti-Philadelphia. At times the movie seems to be even angrier at closeted '80s gay men with political or financial power than at similarly privileged but inactive straight liberals, or at Reagan and his evangelical Christian-pandering minions. The late Ed Koch, New York City's mayor during the Normal Heart years, is blasted as a hypocritical closet case who could have worked miracles if he'd had the courage to publicly self-identify as gay and treat medical research funding and public health initiatives as personal missions. "Why are they letting us die?" Weeks demands, a question to which every other character knows the answer.

The movie's political agenda is clear: to carve out a "Never Forget" space in the national psyche. It wants the official governmental non-response to AIDS in the early '80s to be placed on a list of the most contemptible acts of calculated neglect in the nation's history. It knows the only way it can do that is to disregard everyone else's sense of what's appropriate or tasteful and work from the gut. To that end, Murphy's movie is loud, lusty, sentimental, strident, despairing, viscerally nasty, unabashedly polemical, frequently infuriating, and often powerful. It's a film about love, sex, illness, death, bigotry, and anger. It is imprecise in its effects and sometimes clumsy and overbearing, and there are times when you might wish it would just shut the hell up (particularly when a character launches into yet another statistics-laced speech that sounds far too obviously "written"). And yet all of these qualities make The Normal Heart an equivalent of the literary voice and offscreen personality of Kramer, who wrote the adapted script. I suspect that's why critics by and large have been so kind to this production: because they see themselves in the not-Kramer characters, the ones who're obsessed with saying things in the "right" way rather than hollering and cursing and pounding tabletops and shaming people until they act, or at least react. 

At one point, Weeks, who's been drummed out of his own organization for being a strident, self-aggrandizing, and often belligerent wild card, aligns himself with Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, and Alan Turing, who cracked the Germans' Enigma Code. "These are not invisible men," he says. He's not wrong. His desire for the plague's main victims to stop being invisible elevates the monologue beyond mere self-aggrandizement. Not that it matters what anyone thinks of Kramer/Weeks anyway. The historical distance between those lines' first performance and their re-creation in a movie clarifies a point that Kramer was making from the very beginning: It doesn't matter what you think of the messenger as long as you respond to the message, and that under such dire circumstances, merely to be a messenger is to be a hero. Weeks is personally invested in the course of the epidemic because he's lost friends already and fears he'll lose his lover Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), who's infected and in physical decline. "I’m frightened nobody important is going to give a damn because it seems to be happening mostly to gay men," he says. "Who cares if a faggot dies?" But he's also coming to terms with his own identity, sounding a barbaric yawp across the rooftops of the world and exhorting others to do likewise.

Weeks is a consistently annoying and occasionally repulsive character, bulldozing those who disagree with his tactics, making inflammatory statements without consulting his colleagues, and impugning the motives and beliefs of people who disagree with him. (His showboating evokes a self-pitying rhetorical question posed by the arrogant cop hero of Year of the Dragon: "How can anybody care too much?") But when you consider the magnitude of suffering around Weeks, the other characters' tendency to tone-police him seems surreally misguided. He insists that a more genteel approach won't produce results, and history has proved him right. Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a polio-paralyzed researcher who's been studying the disease from year one, agrees with Weeks. Her despairing rant against National Institute of Health officials who won't fund her research aligns her with the crusading pariahs of the world. ("Polio was a virus," she tells Weeks. "Nobody gets polio anymore.") As 1981 gives way to 1982 and 1983 and 1984, the verbal brawls over how to frame the message become more intense, sometimes turning physical. But over time we can see everyone's resistance to extreme tactics collectively start to fade. Asking nicely is getting them nowhere. The only holdout is Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), a banker who becomes an activist but never leaves the closet, even though his model boyfriend contracted HIV early on, then slathered foundation on his sores so that he wouldn't get fired from runway gigs. 

The film has sympathy for Niles and concedes that his "good cop" approach is valid, in its way — MLK versus Malcolm X, basically; but his inability to evince the sort of confident, outer-directed anger that Weeks displays ultimately marks him as an obstacle or foil, a guy who has good intentions but the wrong priorities. 

Ryan Murphy is the perfect choice to direct this story. Although the social commentary in his TV shows (including Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story) has often been confused or self-defeating, Murphy has never seemed more articulate and focused than when he's identifying with beleaguered and marginalized outsiders. That's why the second season of American Horror Story, subtitled Asylum, was the series' best to date: Like Samuel Fuller's 1965 film Shock Corridor — an admitted inspiration on Asylum that was also set in a mental hospital full of speechifying inmates — the story politicized the most painful experiences of its characters. The Asylum inmates were locked away and sometimes tortured and killed because of who they were and how they lived. They didn't fit into the dominant culture, and they paid the price. That's what's happening in The Normal Heart. The film's individual stories are earthbound, rooted in personal and historical fact, but Murphy and his cinematographer Daniel Moder (Enemy of the State) invest the scenes of infection, death, burial, and mourning with the foggy intensity of a 1970s fright film. The opening section, set at Fire Island in 1981, feels like the start of a supernatural horror picture about an ancient curse that has suddenly awakened. The delicate mood of bacchanalian bliss is destroyed when a handsome young man with a troubling cough collapses in the surf. As the story unfolds we see this again and again: handsome young men falling down, then slowly dying. The slick skin and lesions are lit and shot so that they seem at once real and metaphorical: The disease is destroying individual bodies, but also a post-Stonewall ideal that being able to love who you want will let you be who you want. Even some of Weeks's compatriots in the GMHC worry that the disease is a judgment levied against them, if not by God, then by mainstream America. At first they're disgusted by Weeks's hyperbolic assertion that Reagan hasn't said anything because he wants gay men to be extinct, but as the death toll mounts, they start to wonder if there's maybe something to it. The film doesn't wonder. It says, "Yes, that's pretty much what happened. And if you say otherwise, you're naïve or lying."

If anger and suffering were all there were to The Normal Heart, watching it would be torture. Luckily, it has heart to match its guts. There's always been a crackpot humanist sensibility in Murphy's TV work, even when it was going for sadomasochistic violence or surreal kitsch. The love that, say, Glee lavishes on Kurt and his father always felt sincere, not faked, and when American Horror Story fixes its warped funhouse-mirror gaze on the suffering of anyone pegged as different and therefore worthless, you can feel the outrage flowing beneath the camp. Whatever emotions it's conjuring up, you know the show's not kidding. The Normal Heart isn't kidding, either. It's as bold as Kramer when it comes to the grand gesture. The film's most emblematic image occurs during a fund-raising ball: a low-angled closeup of a glitter ball, each triangular plane reflecting a different pair of slow-dancing men. Every death in the picture seems to diminish its survivors, which makes the often-quoted memorial monologue by its sweetest character, Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons, brilliant), all the more wrenching. He refers to the Rolodex cards he saves after friends die as "a collection of cardboard tombstones, bound together with a rubber band." 

Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO