Early in the first part of Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, two characters meet up in a dreamworld. Harper Pitt (Mary-Louise Parker) is a pill-popping Mormon housewife transplanted to NYC with her inattentive husband Joe (Patrick Wilson). And Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is a young gay man recently diagnosed with AIDS, about to be abandoned by his conflicted (some would say callous) lover Louis (Ben Shenkman).
Both Harper and Walter are confused by their mutual hallucination: strangers, they seem to know each other intimately, or at least some personal details of each other’s lives. Harper tells Prior that he is going to die, and he informs her that Joe is secretly “a homo.” That they possess such knowledge makes sense, Harper says, as in this half-world, they stand at a “threshold of revelation.”
Back in 1993, when Tony Kushner’s two-part play of the same name dominated Broadway, it occupied a similar threshold. That year marked the high point of HIV and AIDS cases in the United States. On the heels of several years of ACT-UP and radical activism, a proliferation of AIDS-related arts and letters revealed the extent of the U.S. government’s criminal neglect of AIDS.
Set in the panicky early days of the epidemic, in 1985, Angels follows the lives of three main characters — Prior, Harper, and Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) — their lovers, friends, and families as they deal with death and dying. Roy and Prior are specifically dying of AIDS, Harper is tormented by a loveless marriage and the general feeling of a world spinning out of control; thus the first installment’s title. Despite the 19 years since its first appearance, Angels retains a sense of urgency. The tone of much critical press has suggested the film is “revelatory.” And while I’d stop short of such exultation, it is a pretty impressive piece of work, and, importantly, it draws provocative links between the U.S. of the ’80s and the nation today.
Angels condenses its critique of Reagan/Bush America in the character of Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), the closeted homosexual and red-baiting attorney for Joe McCarthy. Angels asserts that his perspective on AIDS reflected a general intolerance of difference. Infamous for his manic drive to get Ethel Rosenberg executed for treason, he is here haunted by her ghost (one of multiple roles played by Meryl Streep, in a nod to the “pared down” feel of a stage production). His persecution of Communists and his government’s tacit persecution of homosexuals and people with AIDS amount, the film suggests, to the same thing.
Angels further represents the disavowal of AIDS in Cohn’s relationship to his own homosexuality. When told by his doctor (James Cromwell) that he has contracted the disease, Cohn threatens his career if this news should get out. Roy Cohn, he asserts, is dying from liver cancer. Identified by his power and political clout (rather than by his sexuality, as gay men tend to be), he cannot be a homosexual, so he cannot have AIDS. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who “fools around with other men.” Cohn’s twisted logic represents the entrenched homophobia of ’80s America, and his refusal to admit he is gay or has AIDS reflects the silence of the Reagan Administration during seven years of the epidemic.
It is striking that the Showtime née CBS miniseries, The Reagans, stirred such controversy for its inclusion of one sentence attributed to the former President about AIDS: “They that live in sin shall die in sin.” Kushner and Nichols’ Angels in America is far more critical of the Reagan and G.H.W. Bush Administrations’ records on AIDS, laying the blame for its spread on governmental inaction and endorsement of homophobia. Yet, Angels has reaped only praise from critics and commentators. Quite unlike Reagan, Cohn, to this day, remains easy to revile.
Despite Angels‘ focus on history — Louis works as a “word processor,” and Harper obsesses over the hole in the ozone layer — it manages to be timely. It is difficult to hear Joe Pitt express how he has sought to “overcome” his gayness through strict adherence to religious principle, and not think of the proliferation of religiously based “Ex-Gay” counseling and “conversion” therapies over the past decade. Harper’s reliance on pills also speaks to a nation that has become increasingly Prozac-ed. And Mr. Lies (the fabulous Jeffrey Wright, who also plays Belize), Harper’s fantasy travel agent, directly indexes our own hyper-capitalist society in which consumption is touted as the road to happiness.
By far the most resonant aspect of Angels in America today is its exposure of simplistic struggles over definitions of “good” and “evil.” In AIDS and its Metaphors, Susan Sontag demonstrates how rhetoric early on cast the disease as a threat to the body politic, an invader of the nation that had to be policed and conquered (recall the slogan, “AIDS is God’s punishment”). Such logic gave rise in the mid-’80s to severe immigration restraints on people from Africa and the Caribbean, and political debate about the possibility of AIDS internment colonies or a national registry for people with AIDS.
Angels critiques this rhetoric and alludes to its perpetuation. Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn’s linking of Communism with homosexuality is repeated, in the film, in connections between AIDS and homosexuality with “evil”; and it seems a small step today into the G.W. Bush Administration’s fight against “The Evil One.” The injustice and pain caused by this binary logic calls forth the Angel (Emma Thompson, also Prior’s primary nurse). She appears to Prior and tells him he is to be the new Prophet, to bear witness to the plague and warn of things to come. When he asks, “Why me?” she says that God has long since abandoned paradise, leaving the angels to deal with the seemingly endless host of human miseries of the 20th century. They are hoping Prior can help them at least forestall “the plague.”
The Angel here recalls Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin imagines the angel of history as caught in a storm blowing out of Paradise. Inexorably propelled forward, the Angel stares fixedly at the past and at the rubble piling up behind him, as if he would like to return and repair what has been broken. The storm, Benjamin asserts, is called “progress,” and the pile of debris, the ruins and catastrophes of “history.”
The desire of Benjamin’s angel of history is the same as that of the Angel in Angels in America, to mend the catastrophes of the past, or at least to stop their continuance into the future. To this end, they give Prior the “tome of immobility,” which stays time and stops his progress through history and disease. Thus stopped, he may join the angels in a heaven, free of the concerns of the flesh. This nostalgia for a “paradise” lost is, however, rejected by Prior and his double, Harper. For all the attention the Angel gives to Prior, Harper is, throughout, just as oracular, though more concerned with global rather than personal implications of the coming apocalypse.
Prior refuses the aegis bequeathed on him, telling the Angel that human beings “can’t just stop,” and that “progress, movement, and migration is modernity.” To Prior, “progress” is not merely historical, technological or evolutionary; it is personal growth, wisdom, and self-knowledge. Regardless of all the pain and suffering, human beings will always choose life and their own individual “progress.”
Harper repeats this logic at the end of the film, when she muses that human existence is “a kind of painful progress, longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.” After all the tribulations life is looking up for both Harper and Prior. Harper has left Joe for good and her soliloquy is delivered as she, literally, flies off into the sunset to a new life in San Francisco. The final scene of the film shows us five years into the future, Prior’s AIDS is under control and he has back together with Louis. It is in this assertion that Angels in America becomes most optimistic, and where it resists its otherwise dismal picture. Despite disease and horrors, and despite the fact that we seem always to repeat the tragedies of our own past, there is always hope, however slight, that things will, and have to, get better.