There is a scene, late in the running of “The Normal Heart,” where a young medical volunteer named Tommy (Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory”) eulogizes a fallen friend. Standing at the pulpit of a largely empty church, with twilight creeping wanly through the stained-glass windows, Tommy speaks to the motley group of frightened men filling the first rows of pews. His words fall hushed in the gathering dark, simple, honest, and angry, mutilated by a sense of futility and overwhelming grief.

 

“We’re losing an entire generation,” he intones. “Young men, at the beginning, just gone.”

 

Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s award-winning play is many things: a political statement, a disaster film, a love story, a snapshot of a world slipping into insanity. Largely autobiographical in nature, “The Normal Heart” follows Ned Weeks (a fictional stand-in for Kramer himself, played by Mark Ruffalo) as he navigates the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in New York City in 1981. Beset by a mysterious, untreatable “gay cancer,” New York’s gay community staggers as young men succumb on street corners and the world turns a deaf ear to their pleas for help. Weeks steps into the role of firebrand and crusading alarmist, penning blistering editorials and accusing the U.S. government of conspiracy and murder on national television. As more of his friends perish, Weeks’ fury mounts.

 

Soon enough, the crisis slips in Ned’s front door. His journalist lover Felix Turner (a soulful, wrenching Matt Bomer) finds a lesion creeping along the skin of his foot. It spreads, relentlessly. Elsewhere, Ned’s activist organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis struggles to present a cohesive message to the wider world, beset by confusion and collapsing personal identities.

 

There are politics at work here, to be sure. Kramer’s play debuted in 1985 with the crisis at its full, blazing height and a tone-deaf Reagan Administration steadfast in its belligerent refusal to address the issue. The widespread apathy of the general public towards the deaths of thousands of gay men revealed a world supremely uncomfortable with fast-changing notions of sexuality and personal identity. Kramer’s stand-in for this culture war takes place in a handful of devastating scenes between Weeks and his brother (Alfred Molina), an influential attorney who is slowly coming to terms with Ned’s sexuality yet unable to shake the nagging feeling that he and his brother are somehow fundamentally different from each other.

 

Elsewhere, “The Normal Heart” touches on the fragmented world of gay politics, where the newly-minted freedoms of the sexual revolution clash bitterly with the cold reality of the burgeoning plague. “You are all going to infect each other,” a medical specialist (Julia Roberts) tells a roomful of gay men to howls of rage and disbelief. It is fascinating, illuminating stuff, quite deserving of its own separate analysis.

 

Unfortunately, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation mainly treats politics as convenient backing colors, obsessed as it is with yanking as many heartstrings as possible. Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”) paints with too broad a brush. Passionate soliloquies slip into the realm of hysterics and melodrama. Tender moments trend alarmingly towards emotional manipulation. Murphy brooks no subtlety, instead opting for trauma-inducing fireworks whenever the script allows.

 

Fortunately, Murphy’s efforts are buoyed enormously by an impeccable cast. Ruffalo ably captures Ned’s fury and loss, while Bomer (who lost forty pounds to capture the ravages of the disease) adds welcome grace notes of love and longing. Parson’s portrayal of Tommy brims with warmth and deep compassion. Perhaps the greatest revelation is Taylor Kitsch, who plays a semi-closeted investment banker named Bruce Niles tasked with the presidency of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Kitsch, freed from the stifling confines of multi-million dollar clunkers such as “Battleship” and “John Carter,” perfectly captures Bruce’s desperation and confusion as his personal losses mount, his heart splinters and his own identity crisis reaches a boiling point.

 

In the end, though, it is the human drama of “The Normal Heart” that leaves a lasting impact. This is not a tale with a happy ending. It is a story of brutal suffering and failure, a hauntingly gorgeous song of love and loss in a world with no answers. The tragedy unfolds, frame by heartrending frame, the screen fades to black and the viewer is left with Tommy’s words echoing in the dark.

 

“Young men, at the beginning. Just gone.”

 

Have you seen The Normal Heart? What were your thoughts? Start the discussion in the comments below or connect with me on twitter @aa_murph.  Be sure to check out the trailer as well.