Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Tony Kushner is probably best known for “Angels in America,” his play about AIDS set during the Reagan era that went on to become an Emmy-winning miniseries on HBO. Kushner is also a fervent activist for AIDS awareness and gay rights.
“Wrestling with Angels” looks at Kushner’s recent life, beginning with his experiences producing “Homebody/Kabul,” his play about a woman visiting Afghanistan, immediately following September 11. Kushner gets a fair bit of notoriety for writing such a timely piece, and speaks about his interest in Afghanistan and the country’s connection with the US government. We then move on to “Angels in America,” how it came about, and how it affected his life.
Kushner’s heart is obviously in the right place, but there are two fundamental problems with this film. To begin with, the first two-thirds of the film seem to consist of little more than Kushner holding forth on his political beliefs while adoring crowds hang on his every word and applaud wildly when he finishes. Second, a feature-length documentary seems like an awful big deal for a guy whose career isn’t exactly what one would call lengthy. His buddy Maurice Sendak makes a comparison between Kushner and Tolstoy, which seems premature, to say the least.
The final section of the movie abandons Kushner’s politics in favor of focusing exclusively on his latest play, “Caroline, or Change.” It’s unfortunate that director Frieda Lee Mock saw fit to devote so much attention to showing huge chunks of the play while glossing over his activism, including his trip to Florida to combat voter fraud during the 2004 Presidential election. More of this would’ve been much more telling about Kushner than watching what amounts to a Cliff Notes version of his latest.
“Wrestling with Angels” is a premature homage to an artist who – while few doubt he will live up to his potential – has yet to fully do so.