Tony Kushner's Angels in America, for those who do not know the play's history, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for its first installment, Millennium Approaches, and both it and its sequel, Perestroika, won back-to-back Tonys for Best Play. Angels in America was a Broadway sensation and helped to re-usher political philosophy into contemporary (and commercial) theatrical discourse.
A movie script had been floating around Hollywood for some time, with Robert Altman attached to direct. However, with a total running time of about six hours, no major studio would commit to a controversial three-hour epic and its necessary sequel.
Thank God for HBO, which aired Angels on December 7th and 14th.
The plot is labyrinthine, but here it is in a jiff: Justin Kirk is HIV-positive Prior Walter, who early in Millennium Approaches reveals to his partner Louis (Ben Shenkman) that he now is showing symptoms of AIDS. Louis can't handle death or imperfection, and once Prior is in the hospital, Louis leaves him and ends up having an affair with the married, Mormon chief clerk of a high-powered New York Supreme Court judge. This Mormon, Joe (Patrick Wilson), is married to Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), who is herself married to her Valium addiction. With her closeted, distant husband at work (and on long, lascivious walks) all day, Harper has nothing to do but indulge in hallucinations with an imaginary travel agent, Mr. Lies (Jeffrey Wright).
Meanwhile, hubby Joe is moving up politically, under the guidance of father-figure Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), the real-life baddie who had the same father-son relationship with the even baddie-er Joe McCarthy. Roy is up a creek with an ethics committee that wishes him disbarred, and he enlists Joe's help as an insider to get him cleared before he himself dies from AIDS. A drunken phone call to Joe's mother (Meryl Streep as Hannah) in Salt Lake City brings her to New York for an unexpected intervention, and an angel crashes through Prior's roof proclaiming him a prophet.
If it sounds complicated, it is. Angels in America is nothing if not comprehensive in its attempts to intertwine theology, political ideology, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and nationalism into a great big stew, with human relationships tossed in where convenient and appropriate. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that there is a string of fascinating human relationships upon which these ideologies are attached -- like clothes on a clothesline. Half the time, these characters (each rich and gorgeously drawn) are dealing with the complicated emotional issues at hand: Prior dealing with his sickness and with Louis leaving him; Harper suspecting her husband is "a homo"; Joe deflecting the love of his wife, the concern of his overbearing mother, and the unethical insistence of Roy.
Meanwhile, the other half of the play's dialogue is the spouting of social philosophy. Louis and Belize (Jeffrey Wright again), Prior's best friend and Roy's nurse, sit in a coffee shop and debate racism and anti-Semitism when their real conflict is Louis' crappy treatment of Prior. Louis and Joe forgo much of the excitement and scariness of an affair and Joe's first homosexual experiences in favor of chitchats on Reaganomics. Belize and a hospitalized Roy exchange racial epithets and stances on class issues every time Roy needs a pill. This is the language of Tony Kushner, an academic among activists whose plays weave in and out of interpersonal issues just long enough to make grand and grandiose political exclamations.
This is great television. Give HBO a little credit for reinventing the medium as a bona-fide stay-at-home event and not just a junkyard of pleasant time-passing. Other intelligent fare can be found on the networks, but only HBO has managed to bridge the gap between TV and film with its own production efforts. The effort here -- $60 million in budget and sweeping in scope -- is rewarded with careful guidance from director Mike Nichols, who is no stranger to adapting great plays into great movies. Nichols also gets excellent performances all around. Pacino's accomplishment is almost invisible because of his typecasting as the kind of articulate, controlling blowhard he perfected in Scent of a Woman. But he is wonderful and even tricks some sympathy from the audience as he lays dying. Streep does great turns in a handful of roles (look closely for her as the elderly rabbi), and Emma Thompson makes a hell of an angel.
Angels' lesser-known players are no less distinguished. Kirk, mostly unknown, holds the film together, matching the script's jump from humor to politics to pain with effortless dedication. Wilson, as the chilly, unsated Joe, is unsettling -- as beautiful and as distant as a statue in a book about statues. Parker satisfies as the batty Harper.
There is, years after its 1990 debut, some question as to the immediate relevance of this play and what it says about today's America. Now that the corruption of the '80s, the reality of AIDS, and the secrets of the changing millennium have been revealed, is there a place for this film in meaningful contemporary dialogue? Or is this entirely a look back? The last line of the play is "The new work begins." Was this Kushner's way of saying, "Okay. That's enough talk. Let's get to work."? I can't say. I lack the philosophy. What I can say is that this is, indeed, fantastic television, and again: Thank God for HBO.