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Laramie Movie Scope:
Angels in America

A personal history of the AIDS crisis

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 13, 2024 – Directed by a Hollywood legend, and featuring an all star cast, and based on Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” you would expect this 2003 HBO miniseries to be golden, and it is.

Director Mike Nichols (“Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “Primary Colors” and “Silkwood”) reportedly called this miniseries his magnum opus, and it is hard to argue with that assessment, but for me, personally, “The Graduate” will always be my favorite Nichols movie.

I'd heard about this miniseries for years, but I finally got around to watching it on a two-disk DVD set I picked up last week at a thrift store. It is nearly six hours long, and I finished up the last episode last night. One of the surprising things about it is the outstanding performance by Justin Kirk as one of the film's central characters, Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS.

I had seen Kirk only once before, in “Molly's Game” (2017) but did not remember him. In this film, he is unforgettable, as, arguably, the most important character in the movie. Al Pacino plays the infamous self-hating lawyer Roy Cohn. It is no surprise that Pacino hits this performance out of the park. Here, he is as brilliant as he has been before in a number of movies, such as “The Godfather,” “The Scent of a Woman” and “Heat.”

One of the most unusual things about “Angels in America” is that multiple actors play multiple roles in it. The great actress Meryl Streep, for instance, plays four different characters, including a Jewish Rabbi and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who appears to Roy Cohn as he nears death. Cohn had played an important role in her execution years before.

The Angel America, played by Emma Thompson (“Love Actually”) also plays a nurse and a homeless woman in the movie. As an angel, she appears to Prior Walter in 1985 and tells him he is to be a prophet, a role that Prior rejects. Prior has his own problems, suffering from AIDS and dealing with emotional pain and loneliness, after his partner, Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman of “Pi”) abandons him in his time of need.

Louis turns to Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson of “Watchmen”) for comfort. Pitt is a gay Mormon man unhappy with his life, and his wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker of “Red”). She is usually strung out on valium. Pitt's mentor is Roy Cohn, but somehow Pitt is unaware of Cohn's sordid past and his corrupt business and legal dealings. Louis abandons Pitt because he feels guilt for abandoning Prior.

Pitt now faces a crisis and calls his mother, Hannah (Meryl Streep of “The Post”) in Utah, confessing that he is a homosexual. Hannah drops everything to fly to New York City to take care of her son and Harper, but, by happenstance, ends up befriending Prior. At the hospital, she meets up with several of Prior's friends, including Norman “Belize” Arriaga (Jeffrey Wright of “American Fiction”) who also happens to be Roy Cohn's nurse at the same hospital where Prior is being treated.

All of these tangled, messy relationships are thrown together with visitations from ghosts, angels and dreams. Two of the characters meet each other in the same dream. This movie is a visual feast, with imaginative events and images galore, including a fiery ladder to heaven, shattering visits from an angel and otherworldly sets.

The dialog is equally spectacular, featuring erudite speeches on several topics, including politics, religion, and morality. One that fascinated me was a particularly prophetic speech about politics, made by an associate of Cohn's, Martin Heller (Brian Markinson of “Shooter”) who speaks glowingly about the Reagan administration's legacy to Pitt and Cohn:

“It's a revolution in Washington, Joe. We have a new agenda, and finally, a real leader. They got back the Senate but we have the courts ... By the '90s ... the Supreme Court will be solid Republican appointees ... and the federal bench, Republican judges like land mines everywhere.

“Everywhere they turn. Affirmative action? Take it to court. Boom! Land mine. We'll get our way in everything. Abortion, defense, Central America, family values, a live investment climate. We have the White House locked till 2000 ... and beyond ... It's really the end of liberalism, Joe. The end of New Deal socialism. The end of ipso facto secular humanism.”

Bear in mind, this speech was made years before the Supreme Court's “land mine” decisions overturning Roe V Wade, gutting affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. It was also years before the kinds of federal business law deregulations (ending some New Deal business laws) that led to a worldwide economic crisis in 2007-2008.

This is a dramatic story about broken relationships amid a deadly epidemic, but there is hope, compassion and humor as well. I wonder how it might be different if this story was written now, instead of over 20 years ago? Things are better for some people now, but also worse in some ways. One thing that has improved a lot in those years is computerized visual effects.

This is a very ambitious presentation, and it really succeeds in meeting high goals. It's really a masterpiece. It rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2024 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]