AIDS is a battle yet to be won: Review of The Normal Heart

Director: Ryan Murphy
Screenplay: Larry Kramer
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, Jonathan Groff, Alfred Molina

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The timing of The Normal Heart’s television premiere couldn’t be more perfect: it was shown at a time when AIDS cases are gradually but steadily increasing in the Asia-Pacific region. And although AIDS may not be the biggest problem of most countries in the West right now, it remains a situation that is still left unresolved.

The Normal Heart has reminded us of the brutal reality that AIDS is still something we must fear.

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And most often than not, reminding is but necessary for us all. Sometimes, we have to be reminded that AIDS remains to be a deadly epidemic whose cure has yet to be discovered. Sometimes, we have to be reminded of the harsh figures that reveal the growing number of AIDS-related incidents and deaths every year. Sometimes, especially for us members of the LGBTQIA community, we have to be reminded that we must be circumspect and should look out for ourselves because nobody else might.

The Normal Heart does all that: it serves as a grim reminder that somewhere out there, a mysterious yet powerful epidemic still threatens the existence of gay people. But the television film isn’t all dark and gloomy: it likewise lets its viewers enjoy a compelling story about a struggling community whose members were played by a stellar cast that delivered stunning performances.

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Based on the 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, the movie focuses on the AIDS outbreak in 1981 and how it affected the lives of a group of gay men living in New York City. At the heart of the narrative is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer who helped co-found an organization that aims to address the AIDS situation plaguing the gay community. With the help of his friends and one sympathetic polio-stricken doctor, Ned was able to introduce the alarming concern to the entire United States, including its government.

But Ned has one foible he could not get rid of: he is extremely aggressive. In the end, his style of leadership eventually became his own undoing as it led to his being kicked off the group he co-founded. Adding to Ned’s struggle is his relationship with his life partner Felix Turner (Matt Bomer) who was diagnosed with AIDS.

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To dismiss the film as just a gay drama would be a grave mistake. It’s more than just that. The two-hour long movie is an epic that perfectly encapsulates the struggles that every gay man went through when the AIDS outbreak hit the US in the ‘80s.  And although much has already been said about the infamous disease in the history of cinema, The Normal Heart does not feel like it is merely a rehash of classic films that tackle the same topic like And the Band Played On or Philadelphia, to name a few.

Much like the 2013 Oscar entry The Dallas Buyers Club, The Normal Heart helped resurrecting a believed-to-be moribund subject of films and gave it its own spin. Hopefully, the two films will usher in another era of AIDS portrayal in cinema. The AIDS victims need to see their stories told — we owe them that much.

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Perhaps the greatest reason for the The Normal Heart’s success is Ryan Murphy who helmed a film that deals with an extremely sensitive narrative. Murphy’s directorship is as dazzling as it is moving: he immaculately told the story of several complex and endearing characters, and he treated the source material with a great amount of dignity and faithfulness.

Of course, as a member of the gay community and a staunch advocate of gender equality, Murphy is mandated to do so. How could he not? But then again, a masterpiece like this is hard to come by. So to Ryan Murphy, I say: well done, you’ve made our humble community proud.

But the film’s glory doesn’t start and stop with Murphy. The impressive list of actors HBO has tapped to play the characters contributed to the film’s greatness. Well, all but one.

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As the lead character who’s filled with sheer anger and pain, Mark Ruffallo delivered a stunning performance that will surely earn him an Emmy nod. On the other hand, as Ned’s ailing life partner, Matt Bomer was the most probably committed among the cast members and delivered the finest performance of his career to date.

Julia Roberts’ top notch acting proved yet again that she’s not just another pretty woman and solidified her frontrunner position in the 2014 Emmy race for supporting actress in a miniseries or television film.

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But the most impressive performance came from Joe Mantello who achieved a defining moment during a five-minute scathing monologue. Mantello lost himself in the scene and delivered a remarkably moving speech. This, of course, is a feat Emmy voters would find very difficult to miss. I’m calling it now: the race for supporting actor in a miniseries or television film would be a toss-up between Bomer and Mantello. Can a tie be possible? (Fun fact: Mantello played Ned in the Broadway premiere of The Normal Heart in 2011).

The casting’s lone misstep is Taylor Kitsch who, despite his best efforts to make his role work, couldn’t quite pull it off. Kitsch’s acting is obviously contrived and his level of charisma pummels in every scene. At the end of the movie, you will realize that he is the movie’s one and only mistake.

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The Normal Heart stands as a testament to what the gay community has already achieved in its battle against a deadly epidemic. But it also poses a simple yet daunting question: what must the embattled community do next? And it is but an appropriate and valid question at this point because sometimes we become so absorbed with our partial accomplishments that we forget that only half of our battle is won.

AIDS is still out there and still kills. Do we become complacent or do we join the fight? As a cause-driven movie, The Normal Heart urges us to do the latter. Truth be told, filmmaking doesn’t get any better than that.

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MNL Film Club Score: 1.0

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