How 'Angels' demonizes

Brent Bozell

1/16/2004 12:00:00 AM - Brent Bozell

It's amazing, if not surprising, the degree to which trashing God, trashing America, and trashing traditional values are the entertainment factory's favorite pastimes. All these ritual hatreds are brought together in HBO's miniseries "Angels in America," as the "prestige" cable channel tiptoes into another season of Golden Globes, Emmys and deep-bowing tributes.

HBO, that jewel of the Time Warner empire, has taken Tony Kushner's propagandistic Broadway smash -- the theatrical version of one of those crazy letters to the editor that never end and have too many capital letters -- and devoted $60 million to turning this stale 1980s artifact into a cinematic tour de fossil. They expected viewers to watch this for six hours! It's like a long, slow root canal accompanied by a Fidel Castro address.

"Angels in America." It sounds uplifting, patriotic, wholesome. It's a funny title for a parade of blasphemy and profanity, a concerto of conservative-bashing. It's meant to chronicle the madness brought by AIDS, but it only displays the madness of the maestro who concocted it. How does it stink? Let us count the ways.

Artistically, it's a sprawling mess. It's exactly what playwrights and actors love -- self-consciously writerly, intellectually preening, over-emoting, -- and yet it never seems to prove a point other than how mind-numbing political correctness can silence any artistic critique. As a movie, it is, to steal from Kushner's script, "reassuringly incomprehensible." It is a propaganda pop-gun. It's so badly disorganized in its droning blah-blah-blah, you can understand why the TV ratings were dismal, and declining as the airings progressed.

Politically, it's just the same old claptrap, The Nation on hallucinogenic drugs. The play's chief villain is Roy Cohn, the lawyer who helped convict Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving the secret of the nuclear bomb to the Soviet Union. For this "sin," Kushner indicts Cohn through his characters as the "polestar of human evil." (Stalin, Hitler? They apparently take a back seat.) Kushner repeatedly suggests that conservatives are the opposite of idealism, honesty, sweetness, even freedom. "These people don't begin to know what ontologically freedom is, or human rights," declares Louis, a character who seems to speak for the playwright.

The name of Ronald Reagan is spat out like a cuss word. Louis jeers that the Reagan family "never speak to each other except through their agents." When Joe, the gay Republican Mormon character, asks where liberals would be without Reagan to demonize, Louis replies: "If he didn't have people like me to demonize, where would he be? Upper right hand square on the Hollywood Squares." That's historically ridiculous. Reagan didn't exactly win two landslides by denouncing the existence of homosexuals or proudly declaring his endorsement of the AIDS virus. Liberals won the totality of one state in 1984 with attacks like this on Reagan.

Theologically, it's even worse. In the plot's middle, a central character named Prior, a young gay man ravaged by AIDS, is greeted by visions of an angel, which always give him an erection. He tells his friends that the angels have eight vaginas, in addition to having male sex organs. Bored with the angels and fascinated by the humans, God apparently left Heaven during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and never returned, leaving the angels alone and directionless. The angel gives Prior an apparently holy book, which he is supposed to read through spectacles made of opaque rocks. How drunk or high do you have to be to imagine this hokum?

Here is Kushner's opinion of God, as spoken by a plastic Mormon statue who comes to life to answer the question of how people change: "God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly, then plunges a huge filthy hand in. He grabs hold of your bloody tubes. You might slip to evade His grasp, but He squeezes hard, He insists. He pulls and pulls, till all your innards are yanked out. And the pain ... can't even talk about it. And then He stuffs it back. Dirty, tangled, torn. It's up to you to do the stitching."

As the movie sloppily staggers to an end, Prior goes to Heaven, only to find it is a ruin, like a bombed-out inner city, a ghetto so cold you need a winter coat. Staring at the absence of God, Prior suggests to the angels that God is responsible for all the murder and destruction of the 20th century: "You should sue the bastard, sue the bastard for walking out! How dare He!"

But terminally clueless Tinseltown has made this "event" the toast of television. The Washington Post TV Guide and Newsweek raved so slavishly their blurbs accompany the movie in every preview. The awards and accolades will follow. Our cultural commissars would mislead us into a swamp of absurdity and self-loathing. Only a fool (or a TV critic) would follow.