boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
MOVIE REVIEW

A personal look at playwright Kushner

The opening shots of "Wrestling With Angels," Freida Lee Mock's documentary about the playwright Tony Kushner , aren't promising. Clip from "Homebody/Kabul," then a shot of Kushner typing. Clip from "Caroline, or Change." Type, type, type. A scene from Mike Nichols's film of "Angels in America." More pecking. What a reduction. But obviously from such mundane activity comes some tremendous plays.

Mock has made a decent movie about a great talent. This is an exceedingly friendly portrait, a disarming one, too. The filmmaker invites us to reconsider the author as someone warmer and less intimidating than his body of work. On that count, "Wrestling With Angels" succeeds.

The film is told in chapters that take us from 2001 to 2004, from9/11 to George W. Bush's reelection. Kushner had been out of the country for the first disaster. For the second (Kushner, at least, would call the election a disaster), he's in Miami helping people vote. He's there less as an activist than as a citizen. Throughout this film, Kushner, a leftist, gay Jew, is made to seem very much the accidental polemicist.

Mock is there for the premiere of "Homebody/Kabul," about a British woman's disappearance in Afghanistan, which, amazingly, was written before 9/11 but debuted about a month later. She's there for Kushner's cozy wedding to Mark Harris , a senior editor at Entertainment Weekly.

She includes footage of Marcia Gay Harden doing a benefit reading from Kushner's one-act "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," a scathing imagining of Laura Bush talking to dead Iraqi children. For Kushner's collaboration with i llustrator Maurice Sendak on the 1943 opera "Brundibar," we see chilling footage of the original premiere, starring doomed children of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, filmed as part of Nazi propaganda.

Mock also follows Kushner home to Lake Charles, La., for his father's 80th birthday. On this visit, we begin to understand how "Caroline, or Change" emerged from Kushner's memories of his own motherless childhood and his filial attachment to his family's black maid.

This sort of personal and backstage profiling has its appeal, but you watch "Wrestling With Angels" craving more of Kushner's ideas. You want to see others wrestle with his work. What, for instance, does the preeminent stage producer and director George C. Wolfe , who's overseen a number of his plays, think Kushner means to the world?

In what was certainly a lively panel discussion with three other famous gay playwrights -- Larry Kramer , Terrence McNally , and Paul Rudnick -- Mock shows Kushner looking forlorn as Kramer offers his usual position that today's gays are hopeless and that he can't bring himself to write for the theater. Touchingly, it's also Kramer who says that Kushner's work thrills him. What about Kushner's plays cut through Kramer's seemingly implacable despair? I would have liked to hear.

One insight that deserves more probing is Kushner's desire to be a "popular entertainer." He wants as many people as possible to see his work, but he wants his politics to matter, too. To that end, I wished he could have talked more about writing for the movies (he co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's "Munich"). Seeing "Angels in America" turned into a very successful HBO movie obviously means a lot to him. But if wrestling with angels seemed hard, wait until he plants both feet in the ring with Hollywood.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES