Director: Mike Nichols
Stars: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Justin Kirk, Jeffrey Wright, Ben Shenkman
When playwright Tony Kushner subtitled Angels in America, "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," he was not aggrandizing. Er, he was, but because the epic he created meets the grandeur of those words in depth of feeling, in fantastical imagery, in just how damn serious it is about saying something true about love, death, and America, the subtitle is only natural. It couldn't be any other way, really.
Thankfully, HBO's adaptation of Kushner's play, directed by the peerless Mike Nichols, reaches just as high, and doesn't miss the mark. The sprawling story, set in New York City in the mid-'80s, introduces us to a couple, Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) and Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman). Prior has just been diagnosed with AIDS. At the same time, conservative villain Roy Cohn (Al Pacino, in his best performance of the last decade) is dying of the disease, too. Cohn's protege, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wison) is drifting further and further from his wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker). He's closeted and Harper knows it.
From these threads, Kushner weaves a tapestry—sidenote: this is an overused image to describe art, but it fits with Kushner's fabulous aesthetic, trust—about identity in America during the height of the AIDS crisis. Don't write off Angels as a historical artifact—its inquiries into power in this country, its radical politics, make it just as urgent as ever. And the heartbreak it conjures, that will always feel immediate. —RS