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Frank Rich:

Death and hypocrisy in the Reagan era

Saturday, November 15, 2003
Sunday would have been the night when Americans might have tuned into Part 1 of "The Reagans" on CBS. But the joke is on the whiners who forced the mini-series off the air. Just three weeks from Sunday, HBO will present the first three-hour installment of Mike Nichols's film version of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. (Part 2 is a week later.) This epic is, among other things, a searing indictment of how the Reagan administration's long silence stoked the plague of AIDS in the 1980's. If "Angels" reaches an audience typical for HBO hits, it could detonate a debate bloody enough to make the fight over "The Reagans" look like an exhibition bout.
That's not such a big if. "Angels" is the most powerful screen adaptation of a major American play since Elia Kazan's "Streetcar Named Desire" more than a half-century ago. It has been produced not only with stars but at four times the budget of "The Reagans." People are going to talk about it, and, as they do, HBO will replay it relentlessly to rake in more and more of the country.
"Angels" is only minutes old when Pacino appears as a real-life crony of the Reagans - Roy Cohn, in his post-McCarthy-era incarnation as a still-powerful Republican fixer, closely tied to the Ed Meese Justice Department. A photo on his office wall shows him arm in arm with both the president and his vice president. Cohn is also a closeted gay man dying of AIDS. When he takes a sexual partner to the White House, he gloats, "President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand." Eventually Cohn will threaten to reveal "adorable Ollie North and his secret contra slush fund" unless the White House secures him a private stash of AZT, then the most promising AIDS drug and still unavailable to all but a few. Cohn gets his pills while thousands of other dying Americans are placed on hold.
How much of this really happened and how much is fantasy? Kushner is not making a historical documentary, or practicing journalism, any more than those behind "The Reagans" were. Whatever his script's fictions, it accurately conveys the rancid hypocrisy among powerful closeted gay Republicans in Washington as AIDS spiraled. And though "Angels" takes note of the falling of the Berlin Wall, it doesn't feel that it owes a president any sanctuary from free speech. "If he didn't have people like me to demonize," says one angry non-Republican gay character, Reagan would have ended up the "upper-right-hand square on 'The Hollywood Squares.'" The Reagans are "not really a family," goes another riff. "There aren't any connections there, no love."
There is much, much more to "Angels" than politics, which is why it is so gripping. Were it a didactic ideological piece, it would be deadly. But Kushner's story is built on characters, gay and straight alike, who fight timeless battles over love and betrayal even as they struggle with the meaning of faith, family and America itself at an apocalyptic moment in the life of their nation.
And if anything, Kushner's writing has gained in pathos with age. What he has to say about coping with unfathomable loss and the terror inflicted by covert, death-dealing cells at the end of the last millennium speaks to us more urgently than ever in the new one ushered in by Sept. 11, 2001. If you blink, you may miss the World Trade Center when it peeks out of the clouds in the background of a shot, but its shadow is always there, hovering in the film's vivid downtown New York, roiling the viewer's heart.
Because "Angels" will reach a far larger audience through TV than any play does in the theater, it will instantly cast the curious argument over CBS's "Reagans" in another light. If there was one consistent theme to 90 percent of the outrage over a mini-series that no one outside CBS (including me) has seen, it was focused on a single line about AIDS attributed to Ronald Reagan: "They that live in sin shall die in sin." The screenwriter of "The Reagans" admitted to The New York Times that she had no source for the line and it was cut. Yet even after it was cut, those on the attack kept harping on it more than any other element in the unseen film. Why?
It was the syndrome of protesting too much, methinks. There's no evidence to suggest that Reagan was a bigot, but even so, he did say things similar to that jettisoned sentence. Edmund Morris, who wrote "Dutch," the Reagan biography both solicited and authorized by the former president's inner circle, quoted him as saying, "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague" because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments." But what's more important in any event is what Reagan didn't say - and didn't do - when AIDS happened on his watch.
As Lou Cannon, the most respected of Reagan biographers, wrote in his authoritative "President Reagan," "Reagan's response to this epidemic was halting and ineffective." The president mentioned to his own doctor that he thought AIDS was as transitory as measles. Cannon's bald accounting of the net results of this inactivity speaks for itself: "There were only 199 reported cases of AIDS in 1981. Eight years later more than 55,000 persons had died from this new scourge, exceeding the total of U.S. combat deaths in either the Vietnam War or the Korean War."
Everett Koop, the frustrated surgeon general who tried to enlist Reagan in the AIDS battle late in his second term, gave a speech to a Kaiser Family Foundation symposium in 2001 explaining what went on in the White House during the 1980's. In Koop's account, he was kept out of all AIDS discussions for the administration's first five years, while "the advisers to the president took the stand" that homosexuals and intravenous drug users were "only getting what they justly deserve." In Cannon's biography, anti-Koop forces within the administration are identified as William Bennett, Gary Bauer and Patrick Buchanan - all of whom, uncoincidentally enough, were vociferous in the assault on "The Reagans."
In his attempt to use the debate over a TV movie to rewrite that history, Bauer went so far as to suggest that Reagan galvanized the bureaucracy to take on AIDS - a statement so ludicrous you have to wonder if Reagan himself would find it a reach. In truth, Reagan's actual record on AIDS may be worse than "The Reagans" purported it to be. Jon Stewart, as always, could be counted on to crystallize that point when discussing the fictional "live in sin" line last week on "The Daily Show." "As critics point out, Reagan never said anything like that," Stewart said. "In fact he didn't even mention the word AIDS in public until seven years into his presidency. So you can see why people are upset: CBS made someone totally indifferent look callous."
The farcical hypocrisies of the debate over "The Reagans" don't end there. In trying to explain why he caved on the show at the last minute - there was a full-page ad for it in People as recently as last week - Les Moonves of CBS has taken to referring to his network as a "public trust." If you want to see the reverence with which that trust is honored, don't miss CBS on Wednesday, when it broadcasts the latest installment of "The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show."
As onstage, "Angels" ends on a bright winter's day in 1990, as old friends gather by the fountain in Central Park harboring a statue of the Bethesda Angel. "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all," says Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), a young man who discovers his first lesion of Kaposi's sarcoma at the start of the drama but is still alive at the end. "We are not going away," he says. "We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward."
And so it has. Neither CBS nor those who intimidated it can suppress the story of just what happened in America in the 1980's, a time when too many died in secret and too many of those who might have helped looked away.

Al Pacino as Roy Cohn
Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg CLICK for more info

Believe in HBO's 'Angels'
Extravagantly conceived and gloriously realized, Angels in America is not just one of the best television movies ever made it's also a transcendent work of art. Watching Angels is an ecstatic experience, one that uplifts both your spirits and a medium that so often prefers to be degraded.

Adapted by Tony Kushner from his own Pulitzer-winning plays and brilliantly put on screen by director Mike Nichols, Angels is a work of surpassing reach and power, a play for the ages saved for the ages. Though the focus is on a group of gay men enduring the first onslaught of AIDS in the Reaganite '80s, this is an all-encompassing story, filled with compassion for the strengths and weaknesses we hold in common. Beautiful and profane, intimate and epic, Angels overflows with comedy, drama, violence, sex and death just like life itself.

And what a cast. It would be distinction enough for Angels to present the first teaming of Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, giving performances that rival the best of their legendary careers. But in addition, you get an angelic turn by Emma Thompson and astounding performances by five younger actors: Justin Kirk, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright (a Tony winner for the original), Ben Shenkman and Patrick Wilson. It's like this generation's Big Chill: You'll look back years from now and marvel that all these actors were in the same place at the same time.

As it did on Broadway, Angels breaks into two productions: Millennium Approaches, which premieres Sunday, and Perestroika, which arrives next week. To make the play accessible to the widest possible audience, HBO is offering other configurations, but it seems wisest to watch it as Kushner first produced it, in two three-hour bursts.

Angels revolves around two very different men with AIDS, one fictional, one fictionalized. The almost-real character is the infamous Roy Cohn (Pacino), who personifies all the hypocrisy, delusion and callousness of the official response to the plague. Nothing shakes Roy's riveting lack of empathy: Even on his death bed, he's fighting with his gay nurse (Wright) and taunting the woman he helped put to death, Ethel Rosenberg (Streep, in one of three major roles).

The other patient is Prior Walter (Kirk), who is visited by an angel (Thompson) and deserted by his self-pitying lover, Louis (Shenkman). Louis moves on to Joe Pitt (Wilson), a Mormon lawyer whose closeted homosexuality drives his wife (Parker) to delusions and brings his mother (Streep again) to New York.

Plot twists multiply and characters collide, set to dialogue that is in turn soaringly poetic, wonderfully witty and searingly direct. There is much anger in Angels, but the glory of Kushner's work, and the reason it has not dated, is that it reaches past anger toward understanding. Indeed, that's what makes Prior's final prophecy all the more moving. "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. ... We will not die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come."


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