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‘Angels’ a saga of tragedy and hope

Unlike ‘Reagans,’ HBO miniseries has stirred little outcry
/ Source: The Associated Press

On film, “Angels In America” asserts itself much as it did on stage, where it first thrilled audiences a decade ago. The six-hour HBO miniseries stars Al Pacino and Meryl Streep in a drama that’s sprawling, funny, heartbreaking, hopeful and outrageous - not to mention druggy with fever dreams. (Little wonder: Two of its principals are afflicted with a mysterious new plague called AIDS, while another takes too many Valiums.)

The first half debuted Dec. 7. The second half airs on Dec. 14.

“Angels” will also be aired in hourlong chapters and in a full six-hour sitting. But however you swallow it, this $60 million film - adapted by Tony Kushner from his epic stage work and directed by Mike Nichols - has a way of sticking with you. Love, sexuality, politics, society, religion ... days later, you may find yourself still pondering what it all meant.

One thing hits you right away: “Angels” takes a dim view of Ronald Reagan.

Set in mid-1980s New York, it rejects Reagan’s “Morning in America” gospel. Its characters are facing a terrible new twilight their president doesn’t even seem to recognize.

Odd, then, that “Angels in America” has stirred little if any outcry from conservatives and other Reagan faithful, whose rage against CBS’ “The Reagans,” sight unseen, persuaded the network to pull that film for allegedly doing what “Angels” makes no bones about: Portraying Reaganism as a policy of denial and deadly indifference.

Odd, too, that “The Reagans,” available at last for viewing on pay cable (Showtime), has barely raised a peep. How to explain the firewall that insulates programs aired on pay cable from scrutiny by otherwise sharp-eyed detractors - no matter if the program is a biopic disowned by CBS as too hot to handle, or art created to provoke?

Falling squarely in the latter category, “Angels” stars Pacino as the real-life Roy Cohn, who got his start in the 1950s as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Communist-hunting subcommittee and who, in the 1980s, prospers as a pit bull of a lawyer and a power broker cozy with the Reagan administration.

Even in the service of avowed moral absolutists, Cohn knows what’s what: might makes right. In a scene with his doctor (James Cromwell) he brags about his world-class clout. If, he boasts, he were to pick up the phone and call a certain number, “you know who’s on the other end in under five minutes?”

“The president.”

“Better,” smirks Cohn. “His wife.”

You might think Cohn wouldn’t be in a smirking mood: His doctor has just told him he has AIDS. But he isn’t buying it.

“AIDS is what homosexuals have,” sneers Cohn, who will privately admit to sharing sex with men but insists he cannot be a homosexual since “homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows - who have zero clout. Does that sound like me?

“I have liver cancer,” he argues. Case closed.

Drama of outsiders
A drama of outsiders, “Angels” places Cohn at its core. He’s a homosexual as homophobe, the ultimate insider turning himself inside out.

A fellow tormented figure is Joe Pitt, a rising young law clerk who is Cohn’s protege and a fan of the Reagan Revolution.

“The truth restored, law restored - that’s what President Reagan’s done,” Pitt declares. “He says truth exists and can be spoken proudly.”

But for Pitt (Patrick Wilson) truth can turn out to be shocking. A Mormon who came from Utah with his disturbed, pill-popping wife (Mary-Louise Parker), he is forced to confront his homosexuality.

It starts with a chance conversation with Louis (Ben Shenkman), an overqualified word-processing drone, in the men’s room of the courthouse where they both work.

“Reaganite heartless macho lawyers!” rails Louis, meaning Pitt’s colleagues.

“Well, that’s unfair,” Pitt replies. “I voted for Reagan. Twice.”

“Twice?!” Louis chortles. “Well, oh, boy! A gay Republican!”

“Excuse me? I’m not -”

“Republican?”

“I’m not gay,” Pitt stammers.

Not so good at handling the truth himself, Louis abandons his lover, Prior (Justin Kirk), who was recently diagnosed with AIDS.

Their drag-queen chum, Belize (Jeffrey Wright), is a nurse who soon will be caring for the doomed, wrathful Cohn - and will steal AZT for Prior from Cohn’s illicit stash (who else but Cohn would have the clout to get this highly restricted, experimental drug?).

Streep plays Pitt’s mother, who arrives from Utah to save his soul. And Emma Thompson is the Angel, a spirit with a habit of bursting through ceilings.

HBO’s “Angels in America” is a grand achievement, a set of disparate characters and narratives that interlock powerfully. The cast is spectacular, with several of the actors playing multiple roles (fancy, Streep as a wizened old rabbi!). And Nichols channels the whole rambunctious affair into a sleekly told saga.

Though time-stamped by the Reagan years, “Angels in America” finds new currency in the new millennium, with the nation more at odds now than before. It still packs a punch and triggers fascinating issues.

Here’s one now as airtime nears: In a society so culturally stratified, will anyone bother to watch the film, or even acknowledge it, who isn’t already on board?