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Content, acting excel for 'Angels in America'

Television

December 07, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

HBO's Angels in America is a remarkable and stunning television production. The six-hour adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about AIDS and America in the 1980s, which begins tonight, goes dead against almost every current trend in prime-time network programming.

At a time when the major broadcast networks, at the behest of their bottom-line-oriented corporate masters, are going to ever-cheaper formulas such as reality television, the cost of Angels is a whopping $60 million. The film runs six hours on two nights; this in the middle of a television season in which network programmers have abandoned long-form, multinight productions. Angels feels so big by comparison that it brings back memories of what it was like to first see such landmark miniseries as Roots (ABC), Holocaust (NBC) and Rich Man, Poor Man (ABC) in the 1970s.

What is most remarkable, though, is the intellectual substance Angels manages in a made-for-TV movie format. For the most part in Kushner's adaptation, the play's big ideas about love, death, community, passages, journeys, organized religion, spirituality, medicine, the Reagan Revolution and post-World War II American political history successfully make the transition from stage to screen, losing none of their majesty or sizzle. This at a time when Bill O'Reilly of the Fox News Channel is considered a deep thinker by prime-time standards.

Angels is stunning for several reasons, not the least of which are the performances of Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Pacino plays Roy Cohn, the red-baiting, self-hating one-time aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy of the 1950s Communist witch hunts and blacklists. Cohn, a high-powered New York attorney who died of AIDS in 1986, denied being homosexual or having the disease to the end of his life.

Pacino, one of the few stars of his stature who is willing to play roles intended to repulse, is down on his belly from the second he appears on camera; he never stops slithering and hissing until Cohn breathes his last fetid breath in a hospital bed. Cohn's journey to the grave is at the heart of this saga, and Pacino dazzles with the ugliness, debasement, viciousness and simple creepiness with which he infuses the role.

Streep takes on several roles: an aged male rabbi, the Mormon mother of a young man wrestling with his homosexuality, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a mother of two who along with her husband, Julius, was executed for allegedly spying for the Soviets. Given that questions remain to this day about the extent of Ethel's involvement in the theft of any government secrets, her execution remains highly controversial. It was Cohn, then a young aide to McCarthy, who violated judicial ethics and lobbied the judge to impose the death penalty on her.

Visual grandeur

Some of the film's finest moments come in its final hours, when Ethel Rosenberg, like an avenging angel, comes to Cohn's bedside to witness his suffering. Pacino and Streep keep upping the ante until you think they can't possibly ratchet the emotion any higher. But they do, spewing the fire-breathing rhetoric of Kushner's speech on the wounds from their shared past until there seems to be not a jot of flesh left on their weary bones. Their very last moments together -- with Cohn's last cruel joke on Ethel -- are played to perfection.

Mike Nichols' direction is not quite so perfect, but he understands what television can and cannot do compared with theater as well as anyone in the business. Even though television is generally a far more intimate medium, Nichols appreciates how, conversely, it can give the production a visual grandeur not possible on stage.

He brilliantly plumbs this possibility with the film's very first images. It opens with an airborne point of view -- as if the camera were a jet flying cross-country west to east. Looking down through the clouds, viewers see part of the Golden Gate Bridge, the arch in St. Louis, the Sears Building in Chicago, and then Central Park in New York City. The camera finally comes to rest with viewers looking up at the statue of an angel in the park.

Without a word being said, the stage is defined as America from sea to shining sea. Kushner's words will later define the time as 1985 and 1986, when the AIDS epidemic ravaged gay America.

But Nichols is at his best when working in miniature -- when life, death and the human spirit are reduced to one person lying on his or her death bed in a hospital wrestling with his or her own demons and the angel of death. Two years ago, Nichols triumphed in bringing Wit, a play about a woman dying of cancer, to HBO as a movie starring Emma Thompson. Wit was only a warm-up for what Nichols does in Angels with the deathbeds of Cohn and Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), a young gay man infected with AIDS.

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