Angels in America (2003)
Directed: Mike Nichols
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Justin Kirk, Ben Shankman
Runtime: 352 minutes
Ah, my very first review for Matt’s Life in Film…No pressure or anything, of course!
I remember as a child watching Canada’s “The Movie Network” day and night, taking in any and all films that looked even remotely interesting to me. I vividly remember seeing advertisements for HBO’s new mini-series, Angels in America. Based on the previews, it looked like something a boy my age might enjoy (there were Angels, cool looking special effects, and a lot of drama. What else do you need!?), but unfortunately Angels always played for too late for a 12-year-old boy to watch. In many ways, I’m glad that this week marked my first viewing of the series. As much as I may have enjoy parts of it as a kid, there’s no way I would have been able to grasp most of what the film challenges its audience with, or appreciate some of the great performances and moments within Angels in America.
The year is 1985, and the AIDS epidemic is in full-swing. We follow Mormon and Republican law clerk, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), his boss, the much maligned Roy Cohn (played brilliantly by Al Pacino), and Joe’s Valium addicted wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) on one side of the story. We come to find out early in the story that Roy Cohn has been infected with the AIDS virus, though he lies about it to his colleagues in order to preserve his position of power in the United States Department of Justice. Joe and Harper Pitt are living in a loveless, sexless marriage, and both parties are unhappy with where their lives have led them. Harper is made anxious by affection and many other everyday activities, and relies heavily on Valium to lift her spirits, and Joe is in the closet due to his religious views.
On the other side of things are Prior (Justin Kirk) and his lover Louis (Ben Shankman). Prior has also been infected by the virus, and is quickly abandoned by his long-time partner because Louis is simply unable to handle it. As Prior is slowly dying in the hospital, Louis is ravaged by feelings of guilt and confusion. Prior is visited in dreams by an angel (Emma Thompson), who commands him to choose death and become a prophet in the afterlife. Joe Pitt’s mother Hannah (Meryl Streep) and Prior’s former lover Belize (Jeffrey Wright) help Prior to decide between life or death, and Louis soon becomes involved with Joe Pitt.
Even after all of that is said and done, there’s a lot more to Angels in America than one person can describe with words. As cliched as it sounds, this mini-series is something that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s a beautiful period-piece, and captures its time period a lot more accurately than I expected it to. Playwright Tony Kushner (Academy Award nominated writer of 2012’s “Lincoln”) penned the amazing and intricate script for Angels, lending it immediate credibility. Though AiA runs for six hours, there are very few parts of the story that drag or don’t work in the context of the film, and I was never bored or confused by what was going on within this world. It was completely believable, and incredibly well-acted by most of the cast, including amazing performances by the legendary Al Pacino, newcomer Patrick Wilson, and Ben Shankman. The one performance that just didn’t work for me, and the biggest flaw of the film in my eyes, was that of Mary-Louis Parker, who played Hannah Pitt. While she is competent in some of her pivotal scenes, her line delivery never seems believable, making her monologues a bit of a chore to get through. Not only does Angels in America feature an amazing writer and cast, but it was also directed by Mike Nichols, director of films like “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, who definitely does the film justice with his years of directing experience.
This is a beautifully made film in every respect, and one that I’m glad I finally caught up with. I highly recommend it to anybody with the patience to sit through six-hours of incredible dialogue, moments that will stick with you long after the film ends, and incredible acting, writing, and direction. 9/10.