When I was a little boy I would occasionally get beat up by bullies on the playground. My response to this was to concoct revenge fantasies where the bullies got theirs and came to suffer and regret their actions. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is just such a revenge fantasy; except Kushner is, presumably, an adult.
Angels is about revenge for the AIDS epidemic, and since Kushner is clearly a man who subscribes to the belief that all existence is political, the revenge is demarked by ideology. The “good guys” in Angels — the sympathetic homosexuals — do not hesitate to speak in pretentious, vague, high-minded editorials on the evils of Reagan/Republicans/The Supreme Court/Conservatives/Gingrich/etc., all the standard-issue demons of the mid-eighties (the story is set in 1985). Every thought, every event, every soliloquy has either a political source or political implications or both. Amidst the backdrop of friends and loved ones with AIDS, they fall back on politics for explanation and understanding. Well, OK; annoying people have their place in drama too, but the characters never grow beyond their annoying shallowness. Why not have them transform over the course movie to understand the deeper personal implications of their lives and actions and the actions of others? Hell, the movie is six hours long, you’ve got plenty of time. And these people are visited by supernatural visions for Christ’s sake. Are they so shallow that it does not change them? Turns out they are; they finish off in pretty much the same spot, fretting over the superficial political nature of their existence. That’s not entirely true, they go from being depressed, defeated and shallow to cheery, determined and shallow. It’s quite a journey.
The “bad guys” suffer horrible fates, and it is made clear to us that they damn well deserve it. The bullies on the playground here, apart from the generalized ideological enemies listed above, are two Republican homosexuals who don’t toe the I’m-bravely-out-of-the-closet-and-therefore-I’m-oppressed line. One is Roy Cohn, the notorious lawyer from the Rosenberg trial and McCarthy hearings in the fifties. It may indeed be the case that he was an evil man in real life, but I strongly suspect there are people in this world that could and would make the argument that he did the country a service — such is the nature of politics, opinions differ. The Roy Cohn in Angels has no redeeming characteristics, has done nothing but hurt people out of mean-spiriteness, and most damning of all, he refuses to admit he’s a homosexual. For that, he is haunted by his past and dies alone and disgraced.
The other bad guy is a law clerk who, although he is clearly a decent man and in the course of the movie does “come out”, has written legal opinions that are not in lock-step support of gay rights. His punishment for this sin is to lose both his wife and his gay lover and lead a life devoid of love.
Suffer and regret, you bully! You now see the effect of a strictly political world view. Since there is nothing larger than politics, there is really no such thing as a good faith difference of opinion. It doesn’t matter what type of person you are or whether you merit compassion, if you disagree on politics and there can be no reconciliation. Any disagreement is a battle to the death for control of the universe. The enemy cannot be given any compassion or understanding, the enemy is not worthy to be treated with humanity, this is Too Important. They must be crushed.
It’s possible Angels was more relevant in the mid-eighties, from whence it sprung. (AIDS was a swift and sure death sentence back then.) Maybe years of Will and Grace, Six Feet Under, and Andrew Sullivan, have made Angels in America seems like a caricature of a homosexual pity party. Maybe the fact that an issue such as gay marriage is being debated seriously by well-intentioned people on both sides of the issue makes the whole “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” stance seem rather over-the-top. Maybe the fact that people are living long and productive lives in spite of AIDS has taken the edge off. Whatever the case, drama about ideology is dead end. Irrelevant drama about ideology aspires to be a dead end.
What’s most amazing is the critical response to Angels. Certainly it was expected that HBO was going to hype this beyond all reason, there’s lots of high priced talent involved. But virtually every critic that saw the preview behaved as if it were the most amazing movie since Citizen Kane. What exactly were these people watching?
Is there nothing good? Sure. There are some genuinely funny sequences and some snappy replies that would make even the most jaded critic guffaw (I did). The acting is uniformly terrific. I wouldn’t debate any number of acting Emmys that may come.
Does that save the picture? Not really. Let Angels fall off your viewing list. If you want a good revenge fantasy, watch the South Park episode where Cartman enters the chili cook-off. Now there’s a role model for a little boy on the playground.