TV Review - The Normal Heart

Mark Ruffalo (center) puts up in a fight
in "The Normal Heart" (HBO)
This HBO production won two Emmys, including the one for Outstanding Television Movie, which was an award that it absolutely deserved. Written by Larry Kramer and based on his Tony Award-winning and autobiographical play, this movie is a powerful testament of the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City, the early 1980's, brimming with so much passion and pathos, and so many great lines. Directed by Ryan Murphy (Running With Scissors and Eat Pray Love), it's lengthy but Murphy moves it along at a feverish pace with fast editing and over-the-top sequences, maintaining a terrifying momentum. What helps is his assembling of an amazing cast led by the pitch perfect Mark Ruffalo and supported by great actors in large and small roles, including Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Taylor Kitsch, Alfred Molina, Joe Mantello, BD Wong, Jonathan Groff, Denis O'Hare and Corey Stoll.

Mark Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, a gay man living in 1981 New York. He retreats with his friends to Fire Island. Even before things kick off, Ruffalo's Ned arrives amid a flurry of people but he seems disconnected. He's not like all the other gays. He knows everybody but is lonely somehow. Things change when his friend Craig Clayburn, played by Jonathan Groff, falls over sick on the beach.

Ned goes to Dr. Emma Brookner, played by Julia Roberts. Emma suffered from polio, which left her needing a wheelchair. She's been receiving patients much like Craig who have the noticeable lesions on the skin and who wither away by losing a ton of weight until they die. Emma dedicates herself to studying these patients' ailment and trying to treat it.

Her first recommendation is abstinence, but Ned and everyone in the gay community reject that, so Ned decides to attack the problem through political channels and legal channels. He continually tries to get an audience with the mayor but is continually denied. He goes to his brother Ben, played by Alfred Molina. Ben is a lawyer who agrees to do pro bono work for the Gay Men's Health Crisis, or GMHC, the organization that Ned joins to fight the AIDS epidemic.

The movie represents the fear within the heterosexual community about not wanting to be near AIDS patients, even those that work at hospitals, as well as the broader homophobia. There is speculation as to why the government took so long to take more active steps to address the epidemic.

Ned's gripes are more at the mayor but he does have a scene where he indicts President Ronald Reagan as well. Ned points out that Reagan refused or supremely neglected even saying the word "AIDS" in public. A really powerful scene with Emma has her indict the CDC or other comparable governmental arms about what little they're doing or how they're not researching or approaching the epidemic in requisite ways.

Yes, there's a lot of speeches and a lot of speechifying, but how the makers ground this movie and its characters is by giving proper due to the relationships. Ned pressures a closeted, gay newspaper reporter Felix Turner, played by Matt Bomer, to help him in the cause. They immediately start to date, romance develops and they move in together.

Bruce, played by Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), is elected president of the GMHC. The scene of his election is great because despite not being as intelligent and as well-spoken as Ned, he is prettier and sexier. Bruce gets involved with someone equally pretty if not prettier, a male fashion-model named Albert, played by Finn Wittrock.

Both Ned and Bruce deal with the fact that their boyfriends get sick with HIV and AIDS. Both are members of the GMHC, but where they differ are the tactics they prefer in this struggle. They basically fight over how to fight. Ned is way more aggressive and way more in-people's-faces. Ned is all about screaming and, when that doesn't work, screaming louder. He clashes with not only Bruce but other members of GMHC.

The passion that is infused in this movie comes from Ruffalo's anger in these clashes. He bounces greatly off Kitsch and Molina, and every other person he encounters. The compassion or pathos that's also infused in this movie comes from Ruffalo's big-hearted and unconditional or unflinching love that he has for those that are sick with AIDS.

Bomer gives the performance of his life, rivaling Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. Bomer is simply not in a central role. Emmy-winner Jim Parsons is closer to being in a central role and he too gives the performance of his life. His speech at a funeral and the scene in which his final moment is a wordless act is simply a knockout.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LS.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 12 mins.
Available on HBO on Demand.


  1. Great post. I liked the NORMAL HEART so much, as per my own post on it:
    It was just screened twice here in the UK, but I recently got it on Blu-ray. Its one to keep.


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