The Normal Heart (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made. — Lawrence K. Altman, “The New York Times” (1981)
Before acronyms HIV and AIDS came into the picture, there is only “the gay cancer,” formerly believed to be a plague that affected only gay men. Thus, the government, instead of acting with utmost urgency, chose to turn a blind eye and go on as if the problem would just go away on its own. “The Normal Heart,” directed by Ryan Murphy, tells the story of Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), partly based on the activist and playwright Larry Kramer, in his very personal war to force the American government and its people to pay attention, look past discrimination, and offer some kind of help for a minority but a part of the American society nonetheless against an unknown epidemic.
The picture is at its best when showing desperate individuals trying to deal with the hand they’ve been given. Dr. Brookner (Julia Roberts) starts to notice that many of the patients she sees are immunocompromised, most of them ending up dead within weeks, sometimes months, due to diseases that normally do not kill people. Roberts injects a most necessary intensity into the role. Although her character is confined to a wheelchair, she turns the character into a fighter, someone who wants to understand the new epidemic and genuinely help the men who come to see her. Roberts has a chilling scene with government officials who are convinced that the disease is far from a priority.
Of course, the story’s focal point is Weeks’ perspective and the hoops he goes through so that everyone would be on the same page. I admired that the screenplay makes the character so unpleasant at times that we understand why he is not chosen by his friends to become the president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization that provides services from counseling the afflicted to executing fundraisers for research. Credit goes to the casting directors for choosing Ruffalo to play Weeks because although he looks very accessible, the actor can deliver dagger-like fury in an instant. The contradiction makes the character more interesting because there is an unpredictability to the performer.
But the film is not only strong when someone is having an outburst. There is great sadness when it depicts the gay community in 1981 not taking the disease seriously even though their acquaintances and friends are ending up dead. It makes a case that sometimes a tragedy is allowed to continue because people are not willing to stop for a second, consider, and listen.
Admittedly, it took some time for me to wrap my head around the fact that people still choose to engage in sexual activities, often with random partners, when there is already suspicion that the disease might be sexually transmitted. It is expressed that the community feels that the whole thing might merely be a ruse so that the government can take away the freedoms that the queer community have long fought for. The screenplay ought to have provided a better, clearer context for those who were not aware or alive during that time.
Conversely, we see Weeks’ softer side when he is around Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a writer for The New York Times and Weeks’ eventual lover. We learn details about the protagonist and consider possible reasons why he is so uptight and ready to fight all the time. Bomer is another good casting choice because he knows how to downplay his character just enough—playing him more reserved, a bit quiet, and sensitive—as to not overshadow his co-star’s role in the story being told.
“The Normal Heart” ought to have featured more shots of bodies infected with AIDS. Although we see a few, from skeletal frames to skin lesions, we need to see many, almost on an overwhelming level. I wanted that camera to be as close as possible, almost functioning as a magnifying glass, to the bodies and really force the audience to see what the disease can do. Would that have disgusted or repelled audiences? Yes. And that is good. AIDS is neither a pretty disease nor is it easy to understand. Otherwise, we would have a cure by now. Thus, its ugliness and complications should have been shown through and through.