There are many stories to tell in any part of history–but it in filmmaking, sometimes, less is more. Ryan Murphy‘s HBO film adaptation of Larry Kramer‘s stage play “The Normal Heart” tackles a few too many stories as it provides an unevenly paced snapshot of the onset of the AIDS epidemic– but its real impact lies in the portrayal of the emotional impact on the gay community in the scramble to make the world respond.
The film centers on Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), the fictionalized version of Kramer’s own experiences at the outbreak of the epidemic, as he pushes the gay community to elicit a response from a government entirely ignoring it. Ruffalo brings an anger to the role that’s colored with a grief and fear that keeps the character sympathetic, even at his least likeable.
But the film finds its strength in the tensions created by the varying emotional responses of each character. Taylor Kitsch‘s portrayal of Bruce Niles, the appointed Gay Mens’ Health Crisis president, runs a calm counterpoint to Ned’s loud and often hostile approach in a role that could have easily been villainous or passive. But Bruce’s terrified admission that he’s in love with a third AIDS victim, and his angry-yet-regretful admonishment of Ned’s tactics led to a nuanced additional perspective.
It’s this tension that creates the despair and helplessness that becomes the emotional driving point of the movie. Explosive confrontations between Ned and partner Felix (portrayed heartbreakingly by Matt Bomer) and snaps of “what’s your side doing?” from Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) are the best portrayals of the time period the film offers. In a crisis where so many are turning a blind eye, the frustrations and internal confrontations of a community and its allies grasping for the best way to make those in power listen are deeply felt.
Unfortunately, the pacing of “The Normal Heart” doesn’t make full use of its emotional strengths. The film’s runtime is just over two hours, but every minute of it is felt. Murphy waffles between creating a historical snapshot and an emotional one, to the point where moments that should be incredibly poignant, like Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) saving the rolodex cards of dead friends in increasingly thick stacks, lose resonance and feel almost shoehorned in. The relationship between Ned and Felix, while sweet, feels too secondary in the first half of the movie for the impact it needs to have later on. The film takes too long to recognize the importance of its peripheral players and story lines, and the result veers toward cliched caricatures that are frustrating next to beautifully drawn dynamics of tension.
But despite some lagging, “The Normal Heart” pulls it together for a gut-punch; it’s not without its flaws, but it strengths are reason enough to keep the tissues close.
“The Normal Heart” airs on Sunday, May 25th at 9pm on HBO.