Synopsis: Academy Award-winners Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson lead an all-star cast in a 6-hour HBO Films Event. Directed by Mike Nichols and written by Tony Kushner based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play: Angels in America.
eyelights: Justin Kirk. Nigel Wright. Meryl Streep. the characters. the writing.
eyesores: Ben Shenkman. Al Pacino. the lackluster “special” effects. the final chapter.
“I hate America, Louis. 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.”
Honestly, I had little idea what ‘Angels in America’ was or what it was about when I sat down to watch it with my gf. It had crossed my path many times over through the years, and it was on my radar, if only because the DVD was packaged in this beautiful case and because I loved its gorgeous artwork. There was something unmistakably tempting, alluring, about it.
My gf told me that it would be a drama and that tit had something to do about AIDS, but the only other thought I had was that it might have some political bent to it, especially in light of the fact that it came out two years after the attacks of September 11. A part of me imagined that there was going to be a lot of subtext incorporated in it. In short, it wasn’t going to be a light comedy.
But we needed a distraction and she had just scored a pristine copy of it for 2$ (snatched right from under my nose, before I could see it!), so we decided to give it a shot. Given that it was a mini-series, or at least a multi-chapter story, we also knew that, if it was too much for us to handle, we could easily take it on in smaller chunks, one itsy-bitsy bite at a time.
It turned out that we needn’t have worried about it: ‘Angels in America’ was gripping stuff – had we had the time, we would have plodded through the 6-hour mini-series in one go. Alas, we had to spread it over three or four viewings.
‘Angels in America’ takes place in the mid-’80s, during the Reagan years, and at the start of the AIDS crisis. It follows a few different characters, who are separated by few enough degrees as to be interact between each other at various points in the show. Its main focus is the impact of mental and physical illness on their lives and how it pertains to the politics of their time.
Although the story is quite solid, and the production almost pristine, ‘Angels in America’ depends intensely on its cast to deliver the goods: it’s based on Tony Kushner’s play and it’s a talkie, focusing almost solely on the dialogues and interactions to move the story along. We are meant to explore the deepest depths of these characters, and come out with a better understanding of them and the dynamics at play.
Thankfully, the complement is remarkable:
- Justin Kirk plays Prior Walter, a young man who discovers that he has AIDS. Once buoyant and witty, he now grimly focuses on his ailing health and a betrayal by his boyfriend. Kirk was a standout: he not only looked amazing, even when playing sickly, and imbued his Prior with enough conviction to make him believable, but he had a fire that one doesn’t find in all actors and performances.
- Al Pacino is Roy Cohn, a fiercely-Republican lawyer who’s been around the block many times over – in many ways. Not only is he in denial of his sexually-ambiguous ways and his own illness, but he is a cutthroat, self-serving political operative who has burned many bridges in his time. He is amoral, angry and pushy: before crumbling with disease, he tried to get an attorney in his office to move to Washington so that he would have ears there. He’s not a nice guy. Unlike many, I’m not a big fan of Pacino’s delivery, and his typically-bellicose manner annoyed me here too. But he did have a redeeming moment in chapter four.
- Mary-Louise Parker is Harper Pitt, the mentally-unstable spouse of Joe Pitt. Depressive and lonely in her chaste relationship, she begins to fragment and has hallucinations of all sorts. Despite the amount time that she spends on-screen, she is more of a side character in many ways, having very little impact on the plot. Parker makes Harper appropriately fragile, but something left me wanting – something about her tone, her presence.
- Ben Shenkman is Louis Ironson, Prior’s conflicted boyfriend. While he talks a good game about his socio-political ideals, he comes off as a coward, as someone incapable of standing up for his own values, the moment that he turns his back on Prior. A consistent ranter, he can be not only oppressive but annoying. I understood the character, but he was unpalatable, something that Shenkman’s shrill and wobbly performance didn’t help.
- Meryl Streep plays multiple roles (as do many of the actors), but her key parts are as Hannah Pitt, Joe’s stuffy mom, and as Ethel Rosenberg, a woman that Roy Cohn helped get executed for treason. I found her good, but not particularly great, as though she were coasting. Of course, with Streep, “coasting” is leaps beyond the average actor, but she’s done better. She was best as Rosenberg, I found, because Pitt was genuinely drab.
- Emma Thompson also plays multiple roles, mostly focusing on the part of an angel. While I’m generally a tremendous fan of Thompson, for some reason, the angel was played in a manically melodramatic way, culminating in an unforgettably cartoonish performance in the last chapter. She looked the part (despite her clunky angelic costume) and I could see what she was trying to do, but somehow it was seriously overdone. And her Nurse Emily affected the strangest accent, making her slightly odd. I was a disappointed.
- Patrick Wilson plays Joe Pitt, the Republican, Mormon attorney who has been repressing his homosexuality and has recently learned to live with it, to embrace it, even. Although I liked him in ‘Hard Candy‘ here he comes off as slightly bland, like a good Chris Klein. He didn’t really bring anything to the character nor did he take away from him. Perhaps it was intentional to make him as flavourless as white bread; in some ways it would be suitable.
- Jeffrey Wright has multiple parts, but he particularly shines as Norman “Belize” Ariaga, Prior’s ex and his closest friend. Wright is PHENOMENAL in the part, delivering each line with such precision that his retorts are incisive and his manner entirely convincing. In my estimation, he pretty much stole every moment he was in. He was so good, in fact, that his stand-off with Pacino was immeasurably good; he managed to riff off of his counterpart in such a way that I actually liked both – which is saying something. He rightly won Supporting Actor Awards at the Emmys and Golden Globes for his turn as Belize, having also won a Tony award years prior for his stage rendition of the same character.
‘Angels in America’ ended up winning 11 Emmy awards out of a MASSIVE 21 nominations!!! And that’s not accounting for the many other awards that it won, many of which were for its cast and also for director Mike Nichols, who had made the outstanding one-person dramedy ‘Wit’ with Emma Thompson right beforehand. To say that ‘Angels in America’ was well-received is a bit of an understatement.
For me the show was quite good throughout, but my favourite segments were the first, third and fourth, with the lesser of the lot being the sixth and final chapter.
What I liked about the fourth one was the aforementioned exchange between Wright and Pacino. Even though I couldn’t stand Pacino up until then, he and Wright had most of the screen time during this one and they played off of each other so beautifully that I kind of liked him then. I thoroughly enjoyed this one; I loved how Belize was polite with Cohn but took no $#!t from him. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Unfortunately, the final episode had moments ripped right out of a B-movie, such as when the angel visits Prior a final time; their physical altercation was as ludicrous as bad WWE gets. Then Thompson and Streep had some weird supernatural merging that resembled a cartoonish orgasmic bliss, complete with fireworks. It was nothing short of preposterous: my gf and I were in hysterics. The episode was still enjoyable, but it was a far cry from the first five.
Thankfully, most of the miniseries was rock solid and sustained my interest throughout. The more abstract element (such as the roles of the angels and the hallucinations) remained murky to me to the end, but I enjoyed the rest of this extremely human drama thoroughly. It’s obviously not a laugh a minute, but it’s wrapped up in enough original touches for it to be consistently and sufficiently entertaining,
Add to this a still-relevant subject matter, and ‘Angels in America’ is well worth six hours of one’s time and the emotional investment.
Date of viewings: June 15-25 , 2013