In the penultimate scene of the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Harper Pitt, the emotionally frazzled, estranged wife of a gay, Mormon Republican looks out across a dusk horizon from the window of a plane and addresses the audience:
Night flight to San Francisco; chase the moon across America. God, it’s been years since I was on a plane. When we hit 35,000 feet we’ll have reached the tropopause, the great belt of calm air, as close as I’ll ever get to the ozone. I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening. But I saw something that only I could see because of my astonishing ability to see such things: Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.
The grandiloquence of these lines would ruin a lesser work, but here they function as an appropriate outline of all that has come before. HBO recognized the play’s potential; they allocated more than six hours of airtime and $60 million to the project because Angels in America is nothing if not a grand work. Unlike so many late-80s/early-90s books and plays centered on the AIDS epidemic, Kushner’s work isn’t bogged down in despair or consumed with anger; the play is about why we want to go on living despite all that doing so requires. As Thornton Wilder did with Our Town 66 years ago, Kushner wrote something that speaks to the core of human emotion. Wilder’s Emily asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” Angels in America offers her an answer: The dying, they do some.
When the project became public, many were struck with the time and money it was allotted. The play was successful on stage for years before HBO tackled its production, but a six-plus hour mini-series focusing on gay men and AIDS? That line of thinking, of course, is the most limited a person might apply to the work — God, death, Heaven, Hell, politics, love, cowardice, emotional instability, integrity, family, the ozone, these are integral to Angels in America — but still, gay men and AIDS? Six hours, $60 million?
During the past several years, though, the programmers at HBO have proven they shouldn’t be doubted. The cast assembled for the project is remarkable. Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson — these are heavy hitters with the Oscars and nominations to prove it, and the other key actors (Justin Kirk, Mary-Louise Parker, Ben Shenkman, Jeffrey Wright, and Patrick Wilson) are all accomplished in their own rights. Each gave a stellar performance, and all either were nominated for or awarded an Emmy for their work here, and as is so rarely the case, each deserved the recognition.
Meryl Streep is, as always, amazing. As a rabbi in the opening scene of the film, she completely disappears into the role, as she does as the gay, Mormon Republican’s mother (Hannah Pitt) and as Ethel Rosenberg come back to witness the demise of her murderer, Roy Cohn — presented by Al Pacino as the most repellent human imaginable.
In Pacino’s recent performances he’s often abandoned the restraint that marked his early work, tending toward over-the-top shouting and teeth gnashing.That sort of acting is appropriate to Cohn, and it’s in evidence repeatedly here, but Pacino balances it with scenes where the character displays a quiet, pathetic neediness, allowing us to identify with Cohn briefly before he gives us another reason to hate him.
The real breakout performances, though, come from Justin Kirk and Mary-Louise Parker. Parker’s restrained, dissipated portrayal of Harper Pitt allows us to experience the character’s pain more forcefully than a showier actress could have. When she fantasizes herself in Antarctica, only to realize she’s still in Brooklyn, her disappointment is touching because it’s presented so casually. Parker is always believable because she connects with the audience in a way that feels unabashedly honest, moreso than any of the other performances except, perhaps, Justin Kirk as AIDS-inflicted Prior Walter.
Kirk’s performance combines anger, desolation, fear, and loneliness with just enough obvious disbelief and humor to balance the despair that generally accompanies a character’s struggle with a terminal disease. His expressions, particularly in his scenes with the Angel of America (Emma Thompson), dispel fear of death or sadness at passing, instead invoking pure shock, which seems the most reasonable response to an angel descending through one’s ceiling.
As the Angel of America, Thompson conjures a heavenly creature that is more human than divine, scarred by God’s abandonment but still greater than His earthly creation. She brings to the character an element of self-satirizing humor that plays well off of Kirk, with whom she shares nearly every scene.
Of course, praise for the actors must extend to both the director, Mike Nichols, and the writer responsible for it all, Kushner, who adapted the film’s screenplay from his two original plays: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika. Kushner’s story draws a parallel between America in the 1980s, specifically the ravages of AIDS on the gay community, and God’s abandonment of Heaven. He used the disease to analyze religion and love and the importance of life, and he used God’s abandonment of Heaven to explore the inherent strengths and weaknesses of man. That he was capable of doing this without falling into trite platitudes allowed Nichols to create a movie that is truly exceptional. The film’s themes are larger than gay men and AIDS; they address the most basic questions of what it means to be human and why we want to go on living amidst pain and death. Angels in America is an aberration of American culture: true art that everyone can enjoy.
Ryan Lindsey previously wrote political commentary and the occasional movie review for Pajiba.
Angels in America / Ryan Lindsey
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()