Angels in America Review
Angels in America started life as a work for hire. Tony Kushner, an upcoming playwright with only a handful of plays to his name, was approached by a Los Angeles director and asked to write a play about the impact of AIDS on the gay community. The work started, and eventually became two plays – 'Millennium Approaches' and 'Perestroika' – both under the connecting title of Angels in America. In fact, 'Millennium Approaches' began to get decent exposure only when it played at the UK's National Theatre in London. Both plays won prestigious awards, making Kushner a known playwright and making a televisual account of his work likely, although it took a good while for this to come to fruition.
A two-part dramatic work spanning a fair number of hours on stage already sounds pretty epic in scale. And it is; it takes the form of an epic drama, the plot ferrying us across great distances, a broad cast of characters integral to the performance, and multiple compelling storylines. It's an interesting and powerful piece, so much so that when fans heard there was to be a television version produced by HBO there was some worry that the spirit of the plays would be lost in production. These fears proved unfounded, however, and the result is one of the most thought-provoking, visually-beautiful miniseries I've ever seen. In fact, it's a testament to the show that even using the descriptor 'miniseries' seems misleading – it's more of an epic, regardless of the form it eventually took.
Obviously in a 6-hour piece (as the television version ended up being), it's not that easy to describe the plot. What was intriguing to me was that of the many different summaries I've read seem to have different takes on the bare bones of the plot. So, here's my turn to describe it. In 1981 the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) identified a new syndrome infecting people, often in the gay community. By 1982 this disease had been named AIDS. It took until 1988 for the USA to actually launch a coordinated education campaign about AIDS, with the Reaganite government of the time more concerned with other matters than with tackling this new threat to health. AIDS also stirred up anti-gay feeling in the media and with the general public, as it was initially found within the gay community and it was quite a while before popular myths were disproved on the disease.
Angels in America takes place in the America of the 80s, starting in 1985 against a backdrop of the fear of AIDS, Reagan in power, and corporate and personal greed starting to manifest in the yuppie generation. The plot is fairly straightforward, despite at times seeming complex. It tells the tales of two couples who are having relationship troubles, while simultaneously covering the lives of two men infected with AIDS. It examines the disintegration and reformation of communities and characters too, and of course features a religious undertone with the appearance of angels. In 'Millennium Approaches', relationships come to an end and characters move towards isolation – but in 'Perestroika' communities are reconstituted. An example of this is how Hannah not only helps Harper through her misery, but she also helps Prior through some of the worst of his illness.
Prior Walker (Justin Kirk) and Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman) are in a serious long-term relationship of over 4 years, but the couple start to fall apart when Prior gets ill because of AIDS and Louis is unable to handle the sickness or the inevitability of death in his life. Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson) is an up-and-coming Mormon lawyer who works for and catches the eye of Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) – greedy, manipulative, right-wing and ruthless. Both these men are married and both these men lean towards homosexuality (albeit very closeted in Joe's case). Joe's wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), is depressed and addicted to valium, often resulting in hallucinations which revolve mostly around travel. Added to this cast are: Joe's caring mother, Hannah (Meryl Streep); a feisty drag queen/nurse, Belize (Jeffrey Wright), friend and confidant of Prior; and Prior's nurse (Emma Thompson), who witnesses Louis walking out on his bed-ridden lover in an awkward moment. There's also some angels, of course.
Louis works for the same lawfirm as Joe, but as a word processor. Still, a chance meeting in the work toilets eventually leads to a relationship between the two. At the same time, Harper and Prior share a hallucination in which Harper discovers her husband's secret and which leads her into an escapist fantasy (taking place in Antarctica) before Mother Pitt (Hannah) comes to New York and helps Harper get back on her feet. Prior suffers Louis' betrayal and has to struggle with both emotional and physical turmoil as AIDS begins to get a grip on him, also leading him deep into hallucinations. His constitute a visitation by the Angel of America, naming him Prophet and assigning him the task of trying to arrest mankind's relentless progress. (The idea being that the angels must help out more in the absence of God, who has gone on a permanent vacation, leaving the angels to manage on their own.) Themes of betrayal and loss run through the show.
Roy Cohn shows another side of the AIDS epidemic. A real life character, Roy Cohn was one of McCarthy's cronies and was well-known in this role, participating in some of the biggest anti-Communist trials held by the US, including those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (the latter of which has a role in Angels in America and is also played by Meryl Streep). When Cohn's misuse of congressional privilege and the tactics used by Cohn and McCarthy were made known in the early 50s, Cohn resigned and eventually went to work for a New York law firm, which is where we see him in this show. Though gay himself, Cohn remains an unethical bigot who tries to persuade Joe to move to Washington and basically become a little more corrupt. But at the same time Cohn has been afflicted with AIDS, though he refuses to admit it – instead he tells the doctors to always refer to his condition as 'liver cancer' and once more abuses his power to gain access to the experimental drug AZT. Cohn's nurse is Prior's friend, Belize – thus tying together even more of the characters in intricate ways.
That's not to overlook the fantastical elements of course. Angels in America needs its angels and the sequences in which the Angel of America appears are both beautiful and fearful. The Angel appears a number of times, each time adding something to our understanding of the world portrayed and also to Prior's situation – so much that you can decide for yourself whether the Angel exists or is merely the hallucination of a very sick man whose been deserted by the man he loves (even though in the final part Hannah sees the Angel also). All the hallucinatory sequences are also done incredibly well, with a real magical quality to them and fantastic lighting effects which add so much to the atmosphere. Prior and Harper meet in a hallucination which reveals inner truths to each of them, but aside from that the hallucinations are mostly individual. For example, Harper travels to Antarctica with the help of Mr Lies (also played by Jeffrey Wright) and Prior gets to meet two of his ancestors who died of plagues (played by Michael Gambon and Simon Callow).
The storyline of Angels in America is involved and yet simple. The same can be said for the characters who are deliciously complex, even though they often take the roles of stereotypes. Nothing is truly simple though, and characterization is one of the strongest elements of the show. With each conversation and set scene we learn more about the characters, and can therefore empathise with them and their individual situations. There are two things that makes this connection possible: the brilliance of the writing and the quality of the cast. The acting here is nothing short of sterling by everyone involved. As in the stage play cast members take on multiple roles (something often used on stage to cut down the required size of a company, and less necessary but equally laudable on screen).
The cast are just superb, something in part recognized by Emmys for Meryl Streep (Best Actress in a Miniseries), Al Pacino (Best Actor in a Miniseries) and Jeffrey Wright (Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries). It's a shame they couldn't all win individual awards though as they're all fantastic here. Justin Kirk (Outpatient, The Eden Myth) is remarkable as Prior, charismatic and intelligent but hurt inside and out. Ben Shenkman (Pi, Roger Dodger) has to tackle Louis' neuroses and emotional swings as well as some political diatribe and still remain lovable and gentle as he brings Joe out of the closet. Mary-Louise Parker (The West Wing, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café) plays crazy well, and carries off some ridiculous situations in a believable manner and Jeffrey Wright (Shaft, Ali) is just incredible in all the roles he plays – he's also the only cast member from the stage show to make it into the miniseries. Patrick Wilson (The Alamo and the upcoming The Phantom of the Opera) has a difficult role, as Joe is pretty unlikable, and yet the audience can empathise with his struggle for morality in career and personal life. And then there are the big names – Emma Thompson as the nurse, Angel of America and a homeless lady gives a great performance (and I'm not a huge fan of hers, but I really liked her in this); Meryl Streep as rabbi, Ethel Rosenberg, and Hannah really deserved her award here, showing just how flexible an actress she really is. Al Pacino is a bit shouty in the first half of the show, and I worried he was doing his by-rote 'angry-and-a-little-bit-mad' person, but as Roy's illness progresses, Pacino really gets to show his quality in what must be his best performance of recent years.
Tony Kushner's writing is just genuinely strong throughout, with his dialogue allowing the story to progress while permitting characters to grow and develop until they have a strong connection with the audience. His dialogue is witty, sharp and at times florid – so, OK, people on the street may not speak like these people, but the wonderful use of language that borders on Shakespearean at times in its beauty and descriptive ability adds to the magical quality of Angels in America. The writing is only enhanced by Mike Nichols' (The Graduate) direction, which gets the absolute most from all the actors and establishes some stunning shots, aided by Stephen Goldblatt's (The Pelican Brief, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2) cinematography and skilful editing by John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelen. Interestingly, Nichols, Goldblatt and Bloom also worked together on the upcoming production of Closer, so they must have enjoyed the Angels in America experience!
Angels in America currently holds the record number of Emmys for a miniseries, winning 11 awards including Outstanding Miniseries, Best Writing and Best Directing as well as acting awards for Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Jeffrey Wright. It's a shame more of the actors couldn't have been lauded in these awards (in fact, the Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries was made up entirely of the young male cast plus William H Macy for Stealing Sinatra) – but it's nice to see an award ceremony giving plaudits in the right direction.
So I guess you could say I liked Angels in America a lot. The acting, writing and production values are incredible for a television miniseries, and the story and message deep, thought-provoking and meaningful – though even without these it would be a strong story with good character development and visual treats. There is some full nudity (both male and female) and obviously depiction of gay relationships. There's also some debate on racial and religious matters (with a cast of characters spanning Christianity, Judaism, the Mormon faith, and agnosticism – so there's bound to be some debate on religious doctrine). There's some chance, therefore, that this might offend select viewers. If it doesn't worry you, then I wholeheartedly recommend this.
The 16:9 anamorphic transfer presented here is great, with very rich colours, deep, dark blacks, fantastic lighting effects and yet natural skintones throughout. The show switches between indoor and outdoor sequences effortlessly, and the fantasy sequences are especially striking – this is an incredibly cinematic looking TV miniseries. There is a tiny amount of softness and some grain, but generally this is a top-notch transfer of a show that really benefits from the quality.
There are two sound options for English language; Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 – as might be expected. I mainly listened to the 5.1 mix, benefiting from some nice environmental sounds using the back speakers. However, the two-channel mix is perfectly adequate for those without surround sound systems. The music was composed by Thomas Newman and is beautiful throughout, managing to switch from quiet moments to more grandiose gestures. But the show is really about dialogue, which is always clear above any background noise. We've definitely been treated to a very nice audio transfer here.
Menus, Packaging and Extras
The menu screens throughout are pleasant to look at; for example, the initial one shifts through a number of beautiful shots from the series. Menu selections are sparse, however – you get a choice to play the show, select chapters, and to switch languages. Talking briefly of chapters, there are only 3 chapter breaks per disc, each chapter lasting almost an hour – for me it was good enough, but then I don't often want to jump to a very specific scene.
There are no extra features on this disc set, which is a great shame as I'd love to have had some interviews with the actors, commentaries and discussion from Tony Kushner about how the play and the miniseries came about and how the transition was made smoothly. Ah well, at least the show is so good that the lack of features is only a small disappointment.
The packaging is stylish and pleasant to look at, a heavy cardboard keepcase with small ribbon attached to help to open it and a iconic picture of Prior and the angel adorning the front cover.
The DVD of Angels in America is a treat to own and watch. The miniseries really is television at its best, with high values all around. The quality of acting, writing and direction is matched by the audio and video transfer onto a DVD which I'd really recommend to anyone who isn't easily offended by the subject matter. It's still a shame there's no extra features to add quality, but luckily quality is something Angels in America has in abundance.