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Laramie Movie Scope:
Angels in America

You don't have to be gay to appreciate this as being among the great films

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2004) "There are no angels in America," Louis Ironman (Ben Shenkman), Jewish and gay, going on about the ontology of "freedom" and "human rights" in the United States in the context of the Reagan administration during the autumn of 1985, to Belize (Jeffrey Wright), an African-American nurse and queen in drag, who accuses his interlocutor of being "an honorary citizen of the Twilight Zone," whose guilt is fueling his tirade, and a racist, underneath whose liberalism lurks a "passionate hatred." "Real love isn't ambivalent," Louis says, which gives Belize an opening to launch a disquisition on a novel, set during the American Civil War, about that very theme.

Meanwhile, Louis's lover, Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), sick with AIDS and the "poisonous chemistry" he's enlisting to fight it, whom Louis (wanting to save himself) has abandoned, has uninvited visitors, a pair of spectral ancestors who died of the plague ("spotty jack"), heralds preparing the way for an angel messenger (Emma Thompson), sweeping away myths and deceptions with "the broom of truth."

These scenes in Brooklyn occur during the third chapter (3rd hour) of this intense (alternately harrowing and hilarious), six-hour, HBO-produced drama from screenwriter Tony Kushner, adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed by Mike Nichols; music composed by Thomas Newman. You don't have to be gay to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this story, though Republicans and Mormons may take offense.

Louis's grandmother, an immigrant, has died - "In you that journey is," invokes the rabbi (Meryl Streep) to the assembled family, preceding the burial. Visiting the legal offices of Roy Cohn (Al Pacino in a great performance), "the best divorce lawyer in the business," Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), chief clerk to New York Supreme Court Justice Wilson, walks in on Louis, a lowly word processor, blubbering in the restroom soon after Prior had informed him of having AIDS. The two men have a droll discussion with Louis saying Joe sounds like a "gay … Republican."

Roy, as mentor and father figure, has been trying to convince Joe (whose father, with whom he had a difficult relationship, is deceased) to accept a position in the Justice Department in Washington, DC, assuring the Mormon Reagan Republican that he has the connections to make the call. Cohn brings in Martin Heller, Attorney General Meese's man (with the Republican revolution it will be "the end of liberalism"), to help explain the situation to Joe (who has "the gravity, decency, smarts" for the job) of Roy's facing possible disbarment if they can't get "a well-placed friend" in the DOJ. To the young lawyer's objection that it would be illegal, unethical, Roy flashes: "This is politics, Joe…. You will protect me."

In the apartment where "weird stuff happens," Joe's wife Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), emotionally distraught (not only from a miscarriage but since her lousy childhood, which isn't supposed to happen in Mormon households), sex-starved, and addicted to Valium, has daytime dreams with Mr Lies (Jeffrey Wright), an imaginary travel agent offering her guided tours to wherever she'd care to go; but when Joe says he has an offer to move to the nation's capital, she doesn't want to go there.

In his hallucination Prior encounters Harper having one of her dreams. "In my church we don't believe in homosexuals," she says; "In my church we don't believe in Mormons," he replies. Confused at finding something original, entering from beyond the ordinary falseness of her life's experiences, rearranged in dreams into "the appearance of novelty and truth," Harper realizes she's on the threshold of revelation with insight into Prior's illness (though his core remains uninfected). He, too, has insight: "Your husband's a homo."

So is Roy, though he informs his physician (James Cromwell), whose diagnosis is unmistakably AIDS (little known about the syndrome at the time), that he can destroy the doctor's reputation if he pronounces the classification (neither drug addict nor hemophiliac): Since homosexuals have zero clout and Roy Cohn has it in spades, obviously he's not queer. Ergo, he has liver cancer. Unfortunately, there's only one drug, AZT, says the doctor, for which someone with AIDS might have a chance of surviving the affliction, and being in short supply, not even the mighty Cohn has enough clout to get his hands on some.

"Somebody should get what they want," insists Roy, trying to dissuade his prodigy from the entrapments of love and responsibilities, urging him to leave his wife and go alone to Washington: "Nobody escapes. Save yourself."

Feeling "a heartless terror," yet impressed by Louis's impulsiveness to irresponsibly say irreverently whatever comes to mind (a portraiture of Reagan's false family), Joe wakes his mother Hannah (Meryl Streep) in Salt Lake City, calling from a public phone in Central Park; she flies out to be with him, but when he fails to show up at the airport, she gets lost in the Bronx, asking a homeless woman (Emma Thompson) - "In the next century I think we will all be insane" - for directions.

"The world's coming to an end," thinks Harper - "Are you pregnant?" asks Joe; "Yes. No," she equivocates: "Now we both have a secret" - before accepting Mr Lies's package trip to Antarctica (via her refrigerator).

As long as his behavior is righteous in the eyes of God, Joe believes, he will earn salvation; for Jews there is no afterlife, Louis expounds to Prior on the mysteries of his faith: the stamp of salvation or damnation denies the fullness of a life, "disperses complexity."

Dismissive of Joe's ungratefulness - "moral nosebleed" ulcer over "Laws I can't break" - Roy commands: "Choose!" As the "traitor" departs and the phantom of Ethel Rosenberg appears (Meryl Streep), Roy, who as an assistant US attorney had been personally responsible for sending her with her husband to the electric chair, lying on the floor in agony, utters defiance: "I am not afraid of you. Or death. Or hell."

Chapter four opens in the hospital with nurse Belize in the AIDS ward (who admits his real name's Norman Ariaga), only willing to accept so much abuse from his patient Roy (denying he's a racist - "I save my hate for what counts" - yammering on about how at least the blacks never got into bed with the Reds, as did the loser Jews), yet offering advice about the double-blind drug trials to a man he loathes (Cohn having been the legal henchman for Senator Joseph McCarthy during the '50s).

Using his levers of influence, calling Martin in the middle of the night ("I couldn't sleep, I'm busy dying"), Roy cheats (it's not the money that matters, "it's the moxie that counts"), somehow managing to get his own supply of the precious medication.

At a festive funeral for a deceased queen, morose Prior tells a concerned Belize of the angel's visitation (resulting in a wet dream), to which his flaming friend says it's just not wanting what's happening to happen.

Winged and adorned in white, the Angel, pronouncing him a prophet, gave Prior (whose lesions for the time seemed to disappear) a commandment ("Submit to the will of heaven!"), the sacred implements (peep stones and a book) from beneath the kitchen floor, and with her eight vaginas a plasma orgasmata. "The body is the garden of the soul," she informs him: "Ecstatics makes the engine run," not physics.

In April 1906 following the San Francisco earthquake, God abandoned humanity because its "progress, movement" caused heaven to shake. The only way to convince God to return, she explains, is to "Stop moving," cease migration and mingling: "Turn back. Undo. Until he returns again." Prior has been given the task of this enormous undertaking (implying his having to receive Louis back).

Meanwhile, in Central Park, Antarctica thaws, leaving Harper ("When your heart breaks, you should die") with a burning bush as the police arrive.

Chapter 5: Having learned to live with life's disappointments, Hannah - who has sold her house in Utah, resides in her son's apartment (though she hasn't been able to get in touch with him since he's been staying with Louis), and volunteers at a Mormon center in Brooklyn - takes her daughter-in-law under her wing. Harper asks Hannah, inside a theater with a Mormon family of dummies (the male looking very much like Joe) in a covered wagon, since the Angel Moroni is the central figure in the religion, why members of the Church of Latter Day Saints don't call themselves Morons.

While alone with the dummies, Harper asks the female in the wagon how people change: By having their guts torn out by the filthy hand of God and then stuffed back inside to be sewn up by the victim, answers the female dummy.

If not for gays and others as fodder his demonization, President Reagan wouldn't be in the White House, Louis tells Joe (who in contrast to Lou has blossomed by abandoning his wife, achieving freedom - "I can give up anything," including his temple garments), but in "the upper-right-hand square on Hollywood Squares.

Looking like a mad monk in a dark, hooded habit, Prior grudgingly agrees to meet with Louis - "I want everything to go back to the way it was" - but refuses to have his former lover back. Wondering if Louis has become infected with the GOP germ, Belize says he hates America, so full of itself with its myths, big ideas, and death; the nurse describes his vision of heaven to the "terminal, crazy, mean" man under his care in the hospital: "And you ain't there."

As chapter 6 begins, the female nurse (Thompson) repeats to Prior, whom Hannah (who believes he's had a vision: desire makes prayer makes an angel) has brought back to the hospital, the words of the Angel: "Stop moving. Stay put."

Louis, returning to his apartment, demands to know from Joe who said, "Have you no decency?" Confronted with evidence of his past complicity in the denial of rights to gays, Joe offers a defense: "It's law, it's not justice."

Determined to die before the legal establishment can disbar him, Cohn says to Belize: "Next time around I want to be an octopus." To Louis, asking for a recital of the Kaddish, the nurse responds to his moralistic repugnance: "It's the hardest thing. Forgiveness."

Into Prior's hospital room the Angel returns, once again bursting through the ceiling as Hannah watches in astonishment and then from her knowledge of Scripture instructs the young man to wrestle with the celestial being (this time wearing dark-blue garments) and demand a blessing; Prior then ascends a burning ladder into heaven (looking much as Belize had described it). Before a panel of the principalities (including the faces of Louis and Belize) - who urge him to "Stay in heaven. Suffer no more" - he makes his plea for more life, even if it means more pain and agony from his disease.

It's winter of 1990 as the story closes in view of the Bethesda Fountain (Prior's favorite location in Central Park), an angel with outspread wings, a memorial to the Civil War Union dead in the Navy, in whose waters all of humanity might bathe ourselves clean.

A note: Recently released documents indicate that Ethel Rosenberg was not guilty of being a Soviet spy with her husband Julius. The primary evidence, typing out the super-secret spy notes, resulting in her execution, she didn't do. Her accuser, now 91, who testified against the Rosenbergs and spent 18 years in prison, admits he was a Soviet spy, as was Julius; but Ethel was only guilty of "being Julius's wife."

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Copyright © 2009 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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