Film Studies: Where Hollywood fears to tread

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The Independent Culture

Don't we always sing about angels at Christmas? Well, in America, last Sunday and tonight, HBO is presenting its six-hour movie version of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer prize-winning play, Angels in America, the very emotional panorama of Aids in America in the age of Ronald Reagan - or the time in which Aids was officially denied and ignored by American authorities.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that no movie distributor would have risked doing Angels at any time of year. The length of the show, its subject-matter, and the flagrant, lyrical gayness of the writing would put it out of bounds - according to the kind of calculation that runs the picture business.

Another conclusion is that if you expect to see a big movie entertainment this Christmas that grapples with hugely important current issues, don't look to the large screen. There may be some good films out there, even a few independent offerings with a candid view of the world. But Hollywood doesn't associate thinking with Christmas - or with America. So most of the movies celebrate impossibly brave heroes, while Angels is founded in its respect for frightened citizens.

As part of a tradition that has made it the most innovative movie studio in America, HBO has put a lot of resources into Angels. The film has cost approximately $60m. Now, $10m an hour is modest by movie standards - Master and Commander is said to have cost $150m (and its American box-office gross is settling at about a third of that sum).

But $10m an hour is a big effort for television, and the results show. Above all, this movie fuses the plain, realistic scenes with the steady sense of feverish dreams creeping in from the edges. As photographed by Stephen Goldblatt, this is a radiantly beautiful work, whether showing the blotches of sarcoma or the sudden arrival of angels or ghosts. A lot of this may be lost on the small screen - I hope that HBO will eventually do justice to their own work, running it theatrically.

That's not the end of the talent. Angels has been directed by Mike Nichols (a couple of years ago he directed Emma Thompson in Wit, also for HBO). I thought then that Wit was his most honest movie. Now, Angels challenges it, for ambition, daring and the sheer tenor of the play. Nichols seems inspired by the subject, by the budget limits and by his superb cast: this includes Al Pacino as Roy Cohn, the foul-mouthed, anti-Red, anti-queer, anti-whatever-you've-got lawyer who himself became an Aids victim; it includes Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright and many others, all the way down to hallucinatory cameos by Simon Callow and Michael Gambon.

Nichols grasps the most important point, that this is an event and a modern classic. He has got Streep and Thompson to play many different roles, some small yet so startling you may not recognise them. I suppose that leads to a star-search that could be distracting. But for many viewers, the game may be a weird attraction. Because the play is a classic doesn't mean it's all good. I felt now with the movie as I did with the play that it's self-indulgent, repetitive and deeply set in its own exultant victimisation over the Aids predicament.

But how could it be anything else when a kind of curse had fallen on gay life in the Eighties in a political climate stupidly ready to interpret it as a biblical rebuke? Angels was a sublimely aggressive work meant to carry public opinion when political direction had proved lamentable.

The state of Aids in the US has shifted, just as there are kids today who won't know who Roy Cohn was. Well, Pacino has been roused from his recent boredom. He makes Cohn reptilian, but the kind of monster who is still bathed in Kushner's affection and the film's light. Aids is international now, and George Bush puts more stress on promising help than actually delivering it. So the need for anger has not abated. And HBO has yet again provided proof that it intends to make stories that address what is happening in this country.

So Angels turns out a circus - vivid sketches of gay life, wildly sexy angels, Cohn as a villain you love to hate, and an intense, scalding light pouring over the whole thing like the light above a surgeon's table, or like the blaze of heavenly scrutiny. Not to be missed.