Game of Thrones fans may be momentarily disappointed this Sunday when they switch on HBO, hoping to hear the heart-pumping soundtrack playing over the tiny, moving models of Westeros. That's because this Memorial Day weekend, HBO chose to play its fantastic, incredibly moving original film The Normal Heart instead of its usual programming. While it may shock Westeros fans initially, The Normal Heart's appearance on this week's lineup is a blessing. Ryan Murphy's TV movie outshines Murphy's somewhat tarnished name and the idea of a "TV movie."
The film is adapted from the Tony-winning play by Larry Kramer, which centers on the AIDS crisis that struck New York's gay community in the early 1980s. Of course, at the time, no one knew what AIDS was, with one measly New York Times article simply referring to the growing epidemic as "gay cancer." The Normal Heart follows Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), loosely based on Kramer himself, as he and his friends (Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, and Matt Bomer) create an organization aimed at raising money for research, education about the new virus, and support for those experiencing symptoms. Those trying to spread the word about AIDS faced obstacles from every direction — the medical community, government, and even legions of gay men refused to acknowledge the epidemic as seriously as it was affecting thousands of men. This is the harrowing setting of The Normal Heart.
Murphy, whose reputation is so often associated with flailing dramedy Glee and the fascinating yet continually disappointing American Horror Story series, earns back his industry credit as the director of this fantastic stage-to-film adaptation — a project on which Murphy has been working for years. At the New York premiere of The Normal Heart at the Ziegfield Theater, Murphy stated its importance simply: "[This film] is a triumph, not just for all of us, but for the city of New York." And for once, Murphy has not overstated the impact of his project.
The Normal Heart is a truly beautiful film and incredible important work. While AIDS is now recognized as the horrible health crisis it is, we still haven't found a cure, and there are people all over the world still suffering from HIV and AIDS without hope of relief. Showing the absolutely heart-breaking conditions of the American communities in which this disease was first discovered helps give the brave men and women who worked tirelessly to bring the issue to light faces (and pseudonyms, as the play was based loosely on real people). It brings an issue that often feels dormant and less immediate, despite the fact that it kills millions every year, into a fresh, emotionally relevant light. There is still a fight to be had, and we should attack it with all the power and fervor of the men and women who so tragically discovered it in the 1980s.
And while waving the flag for this film and touting its importance isn't exactly the most enticing endorsement, consider the fact that the film also brings forth some absolutely breathtaking performances. Murphy also said, during his introduction at the premiere, that he and the actors "became like a family," and it shows. Mark Ruffalo is impeccable as Ned Weeks, proving that his talents were underrated for far too long. Julia Robert delivers an expected, yet incredible turn as Emma, the only doctor in New York willing to treat and research the mysterious "gay cancer" afflicting Manhattan's gay community. TV actors known for their less grave characters break out of their molds — Taylor Kitsch as Bruce Niles, Matthew Bomer as Felix Turner, and Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatwright all prove that they belong in dramatic roles. There is not an actor out of place in this entire ensemble.
Despite the temptation to lay it on thick, Murphy and his ensemble don't allow the story to cross over into melodrama. It feels real, allowing the truth of the situation to deliver emotion exactly as it felt for those living through the crisis. It's one of the most honest projects Murphy has produced to date, so much so that it might redeem his more ridiculous television endeavors.
Truthfully, The Normal Heart is not an easy film to watch, but I doubt there will be a soul who watches this fantastic film and regrets a single second of it.
Images: HBO (3)