Back in the late 1980s, the AIDS Memorial Quilt toured in its entirety, an epic expanse of cloth, lace, rhinestones, sequins, T-shirts, stuffed animals, and all kinds of symbolic whatnot. Walking among the clusters of grave-size panels, each one so personalized, so fringed with love, you couldn’t help but feel the enormity and cruelty of the AIDS epidemic. Unless you had a heart of stone, you had to mourn the lives taken, most of them in their prime, all of them under the aegis of an indifferent-at-best political administration.
It’s a profound memorial, one that continues to grow but that, alas, is no longer portable. But now here comes HBO’s “The Normal Heart,” Sunday at 9 p.m., another AIDS memorial of sorts, and one that’s easier to view. The powerful film, adapted from the 1985 play by Larry Kramer, joins the best of the genre — “Longtime Companion,” “Parting Glances,” “An Early Frost,” “Philadelphia,” the shattering documentary “Silverlake Life” — as a monument to the lives lost. It looks back to the first years of the virus (then “the gay cancer”) and the fear, desperation, rage, and, especially, national shame of that time, which, by the way, was only about 30 years ago.
In one of the many soul-wrenching sequences, director Ryan Murphy makes that shame unbearable. Doctors at an Arizona hospital refuse to examine the body of a man named Albert who has died from AIDS, and with no official death certificate the undertakers won’t take him. Albert winds up wrapped in a garbage bag on a car backseat heading to a sketchy crematorium, his mother wailing with horror. You won’t soon forget her primitive shrieks, which give full voice to the fathomless inhumanity of the situation.
Nor will you forget the exasperating, angry, relentless cries of Ned Weeks, the movie’s central character, amid the escalating emergency. Played by Mark Ruffalo and based on Kramer, Ned is one of the cofounders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a New York organization created in 1982 to help those living with AIDS. But, as more harmless coughs devolve into disaster, as more Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions emerge all over the gay community, Ned grows frustrated with the fruitless work-within-the-system approach of the other GMHC founders, especially since the system is homophobic. He lets his wrath explode during meetings with bigwigs, including a violent eruption at a Mayor Edward Koch aide played with excruciating disdain by Denis O’Hare as the face of institutional denial.
Ned’s GMHC colleagues aren’t passive, but their style is practical and optimistic. Taylor Kitsch is the semi-closeted guy who wants the organization to behave nicely in order to get funding, and Jim Parsons is the sweetly compassionate man who saves the Rolodex card of each friend who dies as a kind of shrine. Both actors are quite good, and so is Joe Mantello, who was nominated for a Tony Award for playing Ned in the 2011 revival of “The Normal Heart.” In one brilliant, riveting scene, Mantello goes off on Ned for his aggressive and accusatory attitude toward those who disagree with him, yelling, “I’m not a murderer.” His fury seems to rattle the screen.
In this way, as it explores differing styles of activism, “The Normal Heart” remains as timely as the fight for gay marriage. It’s a reminder of the rocky road that is progress. Most movements attract both dutiful pragmatists and disruptive idealists, the practical and the uncompromising, the patient and the impatient, with each extreme seeming to ultimately pull the other forward. But it’s a disturbing experience watching Ned, a forecaster of doom and a hurler of insults, collide with his friends, since we know all of them want the same thing.
Ruffalo’s Ned is sympathetic in his way, a man whose overbearing righteousness happens to be founded. In his relationship with Matt Bomer’s dashing Felix, he is lovably insecure, and when Felix gets sick and begins to lose hope, Ned’s pushiness toward him appears more obviously born of love and caring — what any normal heart would feel.
Bomer is, quite simply, devastating in this movie, his beauty adding resonance because it begins to fade so suddenly, as his cheeks protrude and lesions gather. He does the weight-loss trick that seemed to define Matthew McConaughey’s performance in “The Dallas Buyers Club”; the production of “The Normal Heart” broke for a few months while he dieted. But Bomer also acts behind his emaciated look, something I missed in McConaughey’s Oscar-winning turn. The convincing chemistry between Bomer and Ruffalo is among the movie’s strengths, too, as it provides a core of love and compassion amid all the acrimony.
Julia Roberts is also remarkable as Dr. Emma Brookner, a wheelchair-bound polio survivor who is willing to treat early victims. She is a no-nonsense type, using her wheelchair like a finger snap when people won’t listen to her warning cries, turning her back on ignorance in order to move forward. “You are all going to infect each other,” she plainly tells a room of gay men who feel that she is threatening gay liberation. “I hope she winds this up,” says one, “because I’ve got a tiny little orgy in New Rochelle.” The innocence of the crowd, still blocking out the looming catastrophe, still unable to hear the truth, is bittersweet.
I don’t think there’s much in “The Normal Heart” that we don’t already know about; the story of the plague has been told before, and it will and should continue to find new life. But “The Normal Heart” tells it with admirable honesty and plenty of emotion. While New York was steeped in the go-go 1980s, while President Reagan projected his grandfatherly charm to the world, this community pulled itself apart and together in order to fight a war.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.