HBO puts on an impressive epic production of award-winning play Angels in America
The film version of Angels in America, now playing on HBO, makes for very powerful television. And in part because of its cinematic spaciousness and flair, it also looms as one of the most impressive American movies of the year.
Tony Kushner’s monumental Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, a landmark of modern American theater, is a wildly inventive and stunningly acerbic commentary on contemporary American life as seen through the lens of the mid-1980s. Reaganism and the AIDS crisis are the historical focal points of Kushner’s lengthy, two-part portrayal of a dozen or so characters navigating topical crises of personal and public life alike. And the cultural mix is provocative, volatile and trenchant—gays and straights, conservative Republicans and Orthodox Jews, Mormons and agnostics, hallucinations, dream visions, and intimations of apocalypse.
As adapted by Kushner and filmmaker Mike Nichols, the HBO Angels is both a fascinating six-hour mini-series and a lavish, multi-layered movie that wraps brilliant moments of intimate drama in wildly imaginative (and sometimes irreverent) bursts of epic/millennial vision.
As drama, Angels resembles a combination of Bertolt Brecht (polemical/confrontational) and Federico Fellini (fanciful/irreverent), but the film version also does some smart recycling of film imagery from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and the entire oeuvre of Jean Cocteau (Blood of the Poet, Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, etc.).
Best of all, perhaps, the HBO version has the benefit of an outstanding cast to play a fascinating array of characters. Al Pacino (as the historical figure Roy Cohn) and Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson in multiple roles are the big-name presences, but Angels also gets memorable work from Jeffrey Wright (in two roles) and Justin Kirk as the AIDS victim/prophet who has the most spectacular encounters with the angels of the title (and the Angel played by Thompson in particular).
Kirk’s Cocteau-esque profile makes his character an even more emblematic figure in the film, and he and Ben Shenkman are good as one of the dissolving couples central to the story. The other central couple, also unraveling, are Mormon newlyweds, played with wide-eyed pathos by Mary Louise Parker and Patrick Wilson, and it is a further sign of Angels‘ emotional range that both these couples are treated mixtures of sympathy, anguish and dark humor.
Streep, who also plays a rabbi early in the film, is outstanding yet again—both as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg haunting Roy Cohn and as the Mormon matriarch who becomes an unexpectedly salutary presence in the lives of several of the main characters. Wright is superb as the gay nurse who ministers variously to several of the characters, and Pacino’s wittily acidic Roy Cohn is one of the sharpest, most intense characterizations in a career full of such things.
Pacino, Streep and Wright all do Oscar-worthy work here, but since Angels in America is made for TV, they’ll have to hope for Emmys instead. But that’s another of the cultural ironies attending this production—it’s an extraordinary movie that exists only because a cable company instead of a movie industry studio set out to get it made.