MiniReview: "Angels in America" (TV film)

Ben Shenkman as Louis and Justin Kirk as Prior. The relationship between these two was a big part of what made this film worthwhile for me.

What is it?

A 2003 television adaptation of Tony Kushner’s 1993 play, adapted by Kushner himself and directed by Mike Nichols.


You wrote about this play before. So what’d you think, seeing it brought to life on the small screen?

I know that Angels in America is deeply meaningful to many people, so I’m going to try to proceed calmly.


Oh geez. This doesn’t sound good.

No, really, what I’m about to say isn’t that bad.

          First of all, there are certain works of art that are so massive, so large in their scope, that one is more or less compelled to take them seriously. They cannot be dismissed lightly. This is one of them.

          For me, Angels in America is a baroque work, in the sense that it’s over the top, excessive everywhere one looks—excessively long, excessively wordy, excessively pretentious. At times, it is excessively moving, excessively inspiring. But it also falls flat as a pancake in parts. It’s a great big, courageously messy work.


I’m sensing a struggle of some kind. Why don’t you just say you hate it?

I don’t hate it! To talk more specifically about the TV adaptation, it’s beautifully realized—sensitive performances by all the actors, stunning shots of New York City, evocative music. It’s consistently watchable.


But …? (This is like pulling teeth.)

I don’t know what the heck the stuff with the angel is supposed to mean. I find these scenes cringe-worthy. (I'm guessing they give an opening to talk about the notion that the AIDS crisis may have some larger meaning, but it's all very clumsy.) The Roy Cohn scenes go on far too long (we get that he’s awful in the first thirty seconds). The fantasy sequence in Antarctica is a colossal waste of time.


Okay, we’re getting somewhere. Anything else?

I guess I’m uneasy with the whole notion of juxtaposing the AIDS epidemic with America’s problems, as if AIDS was a punishment for having elected Reagan. Alan Hollinghurst also used AIDS as a metaphor for the sickness of the Thatcher years in Britain, in The Line of Beauty, but it was subtle. This is a sledgehammer.


No stars for this, then, I’m guessing.

No, you’re wrong, I’m giving it a star! When it’s good, it’s sublime. The plot involving Prior, Louis and Belize (and, later, Hannah) is fabulous. There are some unforgettable sequences and lines. This is a major work of art. I just think it’s a massively flawed work of art.

          In one scene, Belize tells Louis that he is impossibly disconnected from the world, looking down on it from the heights of his intellect and theorizing. I’d say the same about much, but certainly not all, of Angels in America. 

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