HBO's 'Normal Heart' is an extraordinary TV movie

HBO’s "The Normal Heart" will do something to you that TV rarely does: rock you to your emotional roots.

The power of this HBO movie starring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Jim Parsons is such that you can forget about turning off the TV after the final credits roll and going to bed as you might with most made-for-TV movies. This one, adapted by Larry Kramer from his Tony Award-winning 1985 play, will keep you up for hours in an emotional churn thinking about life, love, loss, death and politics.

Oh, yeah. It’s political.

I’m not sure you can make an honest movie about AIDS and not get political. And “The Normal Heart,” which opens in 1981 with the onset of HIV/AIDS and its deadly spread through New York’s gay community, makes no apology for its politics.

After a profoundly touching final scene steeped in melancholy, the blank screen fills with a postscript.

“President Ronald Reagan mentioned AIDS publicly for the first time Sept. 17, 1985, vowing in a news conference to make AIDS research a ‘top priority.’ Reagan’s proposed budget for 1986 actually called for an 11 percent reduction in AIDS spending. By the end of 1986, there were 24,559 reported deaths.”

God bless HBO for still making great movies fired by fierce social conscience — movies that refuse to let American TV viewers conveniently forget some of the more disgraceful aspects of our national past, like the Reagan administration’s response to HIV/AIDS.

Reagan’s not alone. Kramer angrily points a finger at the administration of then-New York Mayor Ed Koch, a largely insensitive medical establishment, the press, some gay leaders, and anyone and everyone who looked away while this epidemic started to rage. And good for him.

Good, too, for director Ryan Murphy, of “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” who not only mounted a brilliant artistic production, but is also upfront about his political intentions.

“I have always felt this movie is more than a movie,” he says in an HBO interview. “It’s a movement to a certain degree. It’s a call to arms. That’s how Larry wrote the play, and that’s what the movie is.”

Murphy says one of his primary goals is to try and make sure younger people know the history of HIV/AIDS.

In that sense, “The Normal Heart” joins a short but surprisingly strong list of TV productions that have told that story with power and passion. I say surprisingly strong, because the conventional wisdom is that TV, a medium largely controlled by Madison Avenue since its birth in the late 1940s, has a history of avoiding controversy — especially at the network level.

But one of the first and finest dramatic explorations of HIV/AIDS, “An Early Frost,” appeared as a prime-time movie on NBC in 1985. Aidan Quinn starred as a young attorney who returns home to tell his parents, played by Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, that he is gay and has HIV/AIDS. Quinn was never better, and D.W. Moffett and John Glover were superb in supporting roles.

NBC estimated that it lost $500,000 because advertisers didn’t want their products associated with the film, but it earned 14 Emmy nominations and an audience of 34 million viewers. Ron Cowen and Baltimore native Daniel Lipman, who would go on to produce “Queer as Folk” and “Sisters,” won an Emmy for their screenplay.

No channel, though, has told this story more intelligently and compellingly than premium-cable HBO, with documentaries like “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” (1989) and “The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter” (1993).

I called “Common Threads,” which used the AIDS Memorial Quilt to sensitively tell individual stories of those who lived and died with the virus, the “best nonfiction TV program of the new season” when it premiered. I hailed it for telling “the massive and awful story of AIDS better than all the news shows on all the broadcast networks during the 1980s.”

“The Broadcast Tapes” tells the story of Peter Jepson-Young, a physician who finds out at age 30 that he has HIV/AIDS and starts taping a weekly video “diary” on Canadian television of what it means to have the virus. While the film chronicles the physical decline of Jepson-Young, it also charts his spiritual and poetic growth as he nears the end.

No AIDS documentary rocked me like “Silverlake Life: The View from Here,” which premiered on PBS in 1993 and included video of a man in the last moments of life and first seconds of death.

“’Silverlake Life’ is the video diary of a gay couple dying of AIDS,” I wrote when it debuted in 1993. “Sound grim? Be warned: It’s more than grim. At times, it’s grueling to watch. But it’s also one of the greatest love stories TV has ever told. It celebrates the commitment of this gay relationship in a way that should shame anyone who thinks marriage is only possible for heterosexuals.”

That’s the highest end of the AIDS-and-TV tradition in which I place “The Normal Heart.” It deserves inclusion with such landmark productions for its artistry and fearlessness.

Ruffalo is overpowering as Ned Weeks, a gay writer and a voice of moral outage demanding a response to HIV/AIDS from the political, medical and media establishments. The Emmy for best actor in a miniseries or movie is not only sure to be his, but you are going to have to go back to Al Pacino’s win in 2004 for his performance in HBO’s “Angels in America” to find as worthy a winning performance.

(That was another high point in TV’s depiction of AIDS. HBO has definitely told this story better than anyone else in television.)

You can also pencil in Roberts and Parsons for Emmys as best female and male supporting actors. Roberts instantly makes you believe in and trust the character of Dr. Emma Brookner, a childhood polio survivor now providing medical care to those affected by the HIV/AIDS virus.

And what a surprise Parsons is going to be to those who only know him from his work in “The Big Bang Theory.” I know about his Emmys for the sitcom, but wait until you see him in the role that he performed onstage in a Broadway revival of Kramer’s play. His eulogy over a friend’s coffin — cataloging the monumental toll AIDS was taking not just the gay community but to the cultural life of the nation — is unforgettable.

But for all that tremendous acting muscle, it’s the writing of Kramer and directing of Murphy that provide the film’s ultimate transcendence. The final scene at a gay dance at Yale University is almost too bittersweet to bear as it reminds viewers of the distance Weeks has traveled since the start of the film in 1981 — and articulates without a word the awful price he has paid for his newfound wisdom.

“The Normal Heart” will do something else to you that TV rarely does these days: show you how much we share with one another once we get past the superficial differences and points of disagreement that so many media outlets seek to exploit in the name of niche programming.


“The Normal Heart” premieres at 9 p.m. May 25 on HBO.