THE MESSENGER HAS ARRIVED.
In the early 2000s, the AIDS epidemic had not been portrayed on TV and in movies in a fully satisfying way. There were respectable attempts, such as Philadelphia (1993) and the TV movie And the Band Played On (1993), but they also faced criticism for various reasons. It seemed as if the crisis was better depicted in newspaper articles… and perhaps the theater. The two-part play ”Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” explores AIDS and homosexuality in America during the 1980s through several characters.
The complete version opened on Broadway in 1993, with Jeffrey Wright in the cast, the only actor to repeat his performance for the TV adaptation. This miniseries was also another fine example of how television was growing up in the early years of the decade.
New York City, 1985. Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) tells his boyfriend Louis (Ben Shenkman) that he has AIDS, which comes as a huge shock to him. At the same time, the legendary, unscrupulous attorney Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) who helped Senator Joe McCarthy during his scandalous hunt for communists and played an important role in getting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed in 1951 for espionage, also finds out that he has AIDS. One of his protégés, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), comes to see Cohn as a father figure, but he’s also trying to understand what his own deeply suppressed homosexuality means for him as a Mormon…
Spiritual and political symbolism
The first part of the story is subtitled ”Millennium Approaches”, the second ”Perestroika”. Both titles hint at the spiritual and political symbolism of the play. As Prior and Cohn are battling the consequences of AIDS in their beds, they have constant visions. For the latter, it’s torture in the shape of Ethel Rosenberg (played by Meryl Streep who also appears as Joe Pitt’s mother from Iowa, one of the angels and an elderly rabbi) who reminds him of the evil he has done in this world, but he stubbornly refuses to see it that way. For Prior, the visions are of a powerful angel (played by Emma Thompson who also appears as Prior’s nurse and a homeless woman) who causes his world to crash and gives him a powerful orgasm, helping him find a spiritual path out of his solitude and bitterness after being abandoned by Louis.
The story also deals with a woman’s (Mary-Louise Parker) Valium-fueled attempts to come to grips with her husband’s homosexuality. Kushner keeps changing perspectives, making us understand the fears and compassion of the gay world as it deals with this horrifying disease, as well as the confusion among straight relatives and hypocrisy of the religious (and in Cohn’s case not so religious) right.
The attitude is positive, with some of the key characters near the end talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of a new world. Naive but touching, and Kushner’s ambition to capture the AIDS crisis and give it intellectual heft is awe-inspiring. The dialogue is splendidly piercing and this generously budgeted adaptation also gives Mike Nichols plenty of room to illustrate Kushner’s ideas with lots of visual effects. This is his second TV project (after Wit (2001)) and he seems very much at ease in this medium as well. It helps to have a dynamite cast like this, with Pacino and Wright offering incredible performances.
HIV is now a manageable diagnosis and some of the political comment may seem dated, especially now that nationalism has become the threat of the day. But Angels in America has become a modern classic, a play that keeps coming back. Its timeless aspects survive – and so does this superior adaptation.
Angels in America 2003-U.S. Made for TV. 352 min. Color. Produced by Celia D. Costas. Directed by Mike Nichols. Teleplay, Play: Tony Kushner. Music: Thomas Newman. Cast: Al Pacino (Roy Cohn), Meryl Streep (Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg), Patrick Wilson (Joe Pitt), Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Justin Kirk… Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Nichols. Originally shown in either two or six episodes. Robert Altman and Neil LaBute were allegedly considered to direct.
Emmys: Outstanding Miniseries, Directing, Writing, Actor (Pacino), Actress (Streep), Supporting Actor (Wright), Supporting Actress (Parker). Golden Globes: Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television, Actor (Pacino), Actress (Streep), Supporting Actor (Wright), Supporting Actress (Parker).
Quote: “I hate this country. Nothing but a bunch of big ideas and stories and people dying, and then people like you. The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word free to a note so high nobody could reach it. That was deliberate.” (Wright)
Last word: “A rehearsal with Mike… the whole cast would be assembled, and the screenplay was read, and he always wanted me there, and I would sit there just watching and listening. But from that point on, he almost never spoke about the screenplay. He would talk, for example, about a moment from his life. So on ‘Angels,’ which is full of jealousies, passion and betrayal, he begins to talk about how he f—ed up his marriage, or one of them, or it wouldn’t even be that direct, it would be some peculiar story, and an hour or two or three would pass by breathlessly, and almost nobody would speak, but everybody was refreshed and in some way included in his wider circle.” (Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, Variety)