Angels in America isn't perfect, but I'm still giving it this rating anyway because it is a major achievement across the board, from the Kushner script (which only sometimes feels like a play but very so rarely) to the direction by Mike Nichols (that's part of the reason why), and of course the performances (holy crap, for the most part), it's a fantasy epic, a tragedy of the AIDS crisis in New York city, it's a relationship drama on multiple fronts, and the story of how Roy Cohn (Al Pacino being at his very most Pacinoist), who was one of the more despicable people in modern American history, found himself part of it and a victim, though he didn't see himself that way.
What I loved a lot here is that Nichols finds ways to make this cinematic almost by just virtue of how he loves his actors and makes sure to have the camera on them when Kushner's dialog is in over-drive. A key distinction between the difference of what a play and what a film/TV/etc thing is can be seen, just as a microcosm example, not counting when Nichols goes into full fantasy special-effects mode (which is not rare here), is in a scene in a diner between Ben Shenkman's character Louis and Jeffrey Wright's (main) character Belize.
Louis is going on and on, one of those rants about politics and identity and left/right and Jews and blacks and so on, and on the stage one might feel the mood of Belize as he is only just barely listening, his mind on other things but more-so just not having the energy to listen to Louis in this moment, but that's all we could see. But Nichols cuts from this to show Prior (Justin Kirk), Louis's (recent) ex boyfriend, stripping down in a doctor's office for a medical exam. Aside from this visual to cut away to, we have Wright's face, and Shenkmanm continuing to talk on and on, until finally Belize stops him and a rather tense, sort of antagonistic conversation happens. This doesn't last maybe two minutes before the real meat of the dialog goes on between the two guys in the diner, but up until then we can see how this filmmaker is making a fully interesting FILM of these events, getting us engrossed in what to take from Belize's emotions, but also the contrast of Louis's ranting voice over this medical exam, which is unsettling and for a good reason.
There is a LOT that can be dissected here, but what impressed me was that Kushner uses religion as something that has two sides to it, but it can work both ways here: God and angels and heaven (which exists in a fog-covered San Francisco, by the way) can be used as fantasy iconography, much in the same way that, say, Neil Gaiman does with American Gods or Good Omens, only here it's much more explicit. At the same time, faith and belief is taken seriously, if only on the personal level. We know Meryl Streep can sell us anything as an actress, and she does here as both a Mormon mother *and* as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg who visits Roy Cohn like a much more crueler (yet rightfully so) ghost of brutality-past. But seeing her as the mother of Patrick Wilson's Joe is fascinating because she does kind of develop in front of us over these hours, or at least she is not just the simplistic type that one might expect regarding a totally pure Mormon Conservative presence. Indeed a very intense phone call Joe makes to his mother in the second part, which sets off her getting on a plane to come to New York from Utah, seems as though this is precisely who she is.
But Kushner, and by proxy Nichols, are brilliant in getting us to see characters in such rich and full dimensions that we have to throw away assumptions about them, that empathy conquers over all. Take Joe, by the way, a devout, practicing Mormon (he's got the underwear), and is closeted. His wife (Parker) knows, but what can she do exactly? I wasn't sure at first if she converted for him or was a Mormon herself, but whatever the case he isn't sure what to do with her anymore. Over the course of this long story, Joe becomes more attracted to another man at his job in another department, the very un-Joe like Louis (in brief: one voted for Reagan, one did not, that clear enough?) and this becomes a thing that has its own complexity due to how we already feel about Louis (a gay man who leaves his gay boyfriend to fend against AIDS by himself).
But do we feel more sympathetic to Joe as the story goes along, despite all of his lying and how he's treated Harper? It'd be hard for me the guess for others out there watching, and I still feel unsure after the end, yet what kept me so engaged with him - and this, I realized, was Wilson's break-out role as an actor, not Little Children, in retrospect, he's fantastic here, especially at what is a lot of acting that is essentially his bottled-up nature - is that *he* is so unsure, and he is deep down a moral man, who refuses a request from Roy Cohn to do a clearly illegal act (the point about it being 'unethical' becomes another matter, one of those volcanic acting scenes from Pacino among many here).
|Meet Donald Trump's mentor.|
Let's talk about Cohn for a moment; here's a man who on the one hand is very clear about who he is and doesn't hide who he is as far as how he presents himself as a lawyer and mover/shaker and man of POWER in his decades-long position (it's not mentioned in the script, but Cohn was Trump's lawyer for many years and a close advisor, to give an idea of what he could do and did for those, also like Joseph McCarthy, a highly questionable public figure). At the same time he's so denied who he really is - the scene with James Cromwell, Cohn's doctor, where he explains that is *not* a homosexual and does *not* have AIDS because that's, in essence, what weak people who have not risen to his position and have not gained in things like legislation and so on have gotten to, is one for the record books - to the point where he can easily lie to himself to the point where he actually, you know, believes it himself. Even by the time he's in the hospital, spending the episodes in the second half of the running time dying, is in major denial. He may be true to himself, but in a crucial way he doesn't have it in him to be when it comes to that empathy that crushed any hopes for progress with AIDS in the 1980's (Reagan never mentioned it for years).
And... f*** does Pacino knock it out of the park here. I think this is one of his major three or four great performances, or at least it should be one of those that gets more attention after the ones that everyone takes note on. On the one hand, certainly in his scenes in the first three parts, he is that kind of Pacino we've seen in something BIG-TIME-AL like Devil's Advocate (and I mean, oddly enough for someone as scum as Cohn was, fun to watch), and then in the second half as he gets sicker... his performance, though with some major bursts of energy, like when he confronts Joe after being told who he really is gender-preference speaking, gets more intimate, more controlled, softer-voiced. He's now the subtler Al that we've also seen in other films, mostly as he speaks with his darn ghost Ethel, who is there even when he doesn't want her (especially when he doesn't want her there). I'd say you have to see it if nothing else for him, though in truth he's like Brando in the Godfather, not in it quite as much as you'd expect.
So if Angels in America has such rich and vital things to say about AIDS and gays in America, not just New York city but that's the jumping off point, whether closeted or with other major issues, and about religion and faith and how we reconcile God's absence in the face of horrors and death and what's the point of praying or believing and what Angels have to do with things... why do I say there's messy parts? Well, for one thing, Parker is one of those actresses I've just never taken a liking to. I recognize some modicum of talent there, but she's always bugged me, something about an affected delivery or how she looks or acts in a scene (largely I got this from The West Wing, but also in other things I've seen her in).
In this she is *better*, but not by much, and there's one sequence in Antarctica (yeah, long story, not really) that felt kind of painful to watch. And there are the scenes with the main Angel herself - this is aside from other dream sequences featuring people like Michael Gambon, which are at least entertaining in a detached-from-reality perspective - played by Emma Thompson in one of her several roles here. She is so BIG in this acting that she probably could go head to head with Pacino, but, and this sounds strange considering she's supposed to be playing a fantasy character, it's *too* big, the kind of wild acting where she throws her LOUD voice and BIG physical gestures into a character that that becomes all that I can see when it's going on. Not to mention the CGI hasn't held up altogether well; some of it has, perhaps the subtler things I didn't notice, but other times, and God bless Richard Edlund's work here, it took me out of even the intentionally remarkable fantasy scenes.
At the same time as I have these things I can point to as "ehh", it doesn't detract from the HUGE nature of this entire work. There's so much to break down here that I can't sum it all up in one review or in one viewing. I'm sure Kushner and Nichols meant it that way, and is why the play was such a monumental feat unto itself at the time. Fiction like this is meant to take what is so painful and hard and complicated about real life, what was a devastating *plague* for an entire community and them some of many, many people who were innocent beings and elevate it through the commentary, satire but also just spiritual nature of fantasy. We can view this time period via these angels and God and whatever that Heaven is in San Francisco and the commentary enhances what was so tragic and horrible but also that, deep down, people are good generally speaking (except for Cohn, and in which case it's a blast to watch him as long as you don't have to be in the room with the prick). Even the end of the millennium is a part of the *plot*, to give an idea of the ambition here.