Angels In America dominated this year's Emmys, and rightfully so: From its source material to its scope to its cast to its length to its structure, the minseries boldly announces itself as one for the ages. Thanks to a phenomenal cast, Mike Nichols' sensitive direction, and Tony Kushner's script, it generally achieves its generation-defining ambitions. Of course, it helps that the generation it aspires to define has already passed, which lends Kushner's work an elegiac quality fitting its delicately wrought portrayal of gay America wrestling with a plague of biblical proportions.
Adapted by Kushner from his two-part Pulitzer-winning play, Angels In America charts the nation's unsteady struggle through the onset of the '80s AIDS crisis, through the interlocking stories of a Mormon couple torn asunder by the husband's closeted homosexuality, a guilt-stricken legal flunky who leaves his AIDS-stricken partner, and the last days of arch-conservative Roy Cohn (played with gusto by Al Pacino), the infamous lawyer who never let his status as a gay Jew keep him from working tirelessly against the interests of both groups. Haunted by the sly, taunting ghost of executed spy Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep), Cohn isn't about to go gently into that good night, especially when played by a ham as well-seasoned as Pacino.
Few pop-culture landmarks are as doggedly theatrical as Angels In America, which poses a challenge for the filmmakers. Kushner's self-described "gay fantasia on national themes" is a juggernaut of words and ideas, not action, movement, or plot, which makes it a tricky proposition for a medium hostile to the long, lyrical streams of language in which he specializes. Kushner is unreservedly in love with words: the way they sound, their infinite possibilities, and their power to convey everything from the most profane insults to the loftiest ideas.
Kushner and Nichols don't even try to keep the floorboards from squeaking throughout much of their miniseries' six-hour run. Kushner's characters talk and talk and talk, often in unabashedly didactic and self-conscious ways. Yet his dialogue remains poetic and resonant even as it calls attention to itself with every linguistic flight of fancy and virtuoso monologue. Nichols' adaptation seldom hides its theatrical origins, but the transition from stage to screen proves unwieldy only during scenes involving angel Emma Thompson, and her periodic visits with an AIDS victim who may be a prophet. Onstage, the surreal juxtaposition of the pop-operatically religious and the mundane no doubt scored big laughs, but in the more literal and explicit medium of film, the humor and bathos land with a thud. Given the task of playing an oversexed angel with eight vaginas, and burdened with Kushner's ripest dialogue, Thompson shrieks and gestures wildly, unintentionally edging the miniseries into the delirious camp of a lesser Ken Russell movie.
Pacino similarly gives a performance of enormous quantity, but he's blessed with a showy role that demands his brand of near-psychotic intensity. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the great Jeffrey Wright brilliantly underplays both a cosmic hustler of a travel agent tripping through space, and a nurse who matches wits with Pacino on his deathbed. Wright's character embodies a familiar type: the tart-tongued queen whose acidic wit belies his heart of gold. Reinvigorating and energizing a durable stereotype, Wright steals scenes from Pacino not by matching his raspy intensity, but by embracing stillness. He gets more from a purred, musical near-whisper than the heavyweights around him get from histrionics. When inhabited by geniuses like Wright, Kushner's ironic and sincere, ambitious and unafraid words soar over a plague-ravaged but hopeful country, achieving the grace and sublime transcendence at the heart of Nichols' beautifully realized socio-political fable.