The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's angry, urgent, hectoring play – first staged in 1985 and only now arriving as a film in an excellent production directed by Glee creator Ryan Murphy – has the strength of undiluted acid: It breaks down and eats away the insulation, built up over time, that allows us to place the onset of the AIDS crisis in history.
Even though it's now nearly 30 years old, The Normal Heart (premiering on HBO Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT) is not a period piece or a cautionary tale. You are not meant to watch it and think, "Well, this will be useful for the next time." It's a bulletin from the front lines, an in-the-moment, heart-stopping report about the terrifying progress of HIV/AIDS as it sweeps through and decimates Manhattan's gay population.
"Crisis," in retrospect, was an oddly restrained word for this plague. It suggests policy and control – precisely the things that were absent, according to Kramer, as the political, medical and even gay establishments failed to act with the necessary hard-headed urgency.
There isn't really much plot beyond the premise – a gay writer named Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) tries to sound the alarm, both in the gay community and among officials, over the outbreak of a so-called gay cancer – but there isn't much plot in The Hurt Locker, either. It isn't necessary. The Normal Heart is polemical at heart. That's its strength.
Ned and just about everyone else erupts in violent arguments, denunciations, accusations, counteraccusations, diatribes – these are searing, electrifying moments, furiously articulate and delivered with escalating passion by a cast that includes Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, Denis O'Hare, Matt Bomer, Alfred Molina and (as a doctor who quickly understands the extent and severity of the epidemic) Julia Roberts.
Mantello, in particular, is given what in theatrical terms is a monologue so big – an aria of frustration and fear that ends with a near-physical collapse – that it could play as pure histrionics on the average television screen. But Kramer's access to the emotions of that place and time are so direct and unfiltered that it works. It's a pummeling, but a good one.
The only such "big" moment that falters is Roberts' key scene, in which she's denied the research funding her patients so desperately need. Roberts can be a daring actress when it comes to showing us a peremptory surliness or hostility – I would say she handily outmaneuvered Meryl Streep in August: Osage County – but here she's allowed to seem proud of it.
That's the thing: The characters in The Normal Heart don't own their anger. It owns them or – Kramer makes no bones about this – it should. It must.