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TELEVISION REVIEW

HBO infuses `Angels' with new life

Nichols, cast triumph in inspiring production

Since it gave wings to the American stage in the early 1990s, "Angels in America" has been endlessly genuflected to, crowed over, borrowed from, and written about. It's hard to believe there's any cosmic magic left to harvest from its klieg-lit spirit.

And yet HBO, director Mike Nichols, and a magnificent cast led by Meryl Streep have pulled a spellbinding and revelatory TV movie out of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning work. Note-perfectly written for the screen by its playwright, Tony Kushner, the adaptation is as trenchant, poetic, fantastical, and moving as its source -- with the added thrill of an up-close cinematic approach. As it looks back in anger, forgiveness, and still more anger at the Reagan era, HBO's "Angels in America" unfolds into the most powerful television experience of the year.

Like the play, the movie, which is set in the mid-1980s, appears in two three-hour parts. The fraught "Millennium Approaches" premieres Sunday night at 8, and the more eruptive "Perestroika" next Sunday at 8.

One of the "Angels" miracles that survives the risky leap to the screen is its paradoxical size -- that it is intimate and epic at the same time. With both facial closeups and panoramic views of heaven, the movie finds as much drama in the despairing eyes of a lonely, Valium-addicted wife as it does in its Big Themes. Without force or pretension, Kushner connects the failings of the story's two central couples in New York to the abandonment by God, who has been missing since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Everything that happens on earth -- Prior Walter's AIDS diagnosis, his lover Louis Ironson's cowardly departure from him, Mormon husband Joe Pitt's sexual self-loathing, his wife Harper's retreat into self-medication -- is effortlessly connected to political realities, religious tyrannies, and celestial mysteries.

The plotting over the movie's six hours is crystal clear, as the seemingly random ensemble of characters comes round in a circle. After Prior gets AIDS, the terrified Louis meets the closeted Joe, who is the protege of the amoral Roy Cohn, who has AIDS and is nursed by Prior's wise best friend, Belize. And yet there's something consistently and wonderfully beyond reach about "Angels in America," a gesturing toward the open sky that makes it so evocative. It keeps lapsing into otherworldly hallucinations, where rejected spouses Prior and Harper meet to exchange hard truths. Transcendently elusive and allusive monologues sneak in and out of the script, for instance as Belize spins a fantasy of heaven that showcases both Kushner's poetry and actor Jeffrey Wright's great subtlety. And the repeated angelic visitations, all crackling plaster and fire, set the whole story teetering on some kind of planetary brink. As the winged lady crashes through Prior's ceiling to erotically stimulate and to claim him, she's both anguished and comic -- qualities nicely embodied by Emma Thompson's mock bluster.

Newcomer Justin Kirk anchors the movie as Prior, who is preyed upon not only by the angel but by his dead ancestors, including one who also suffered from a "spotty monster" pestilence. (One virtue of movie closeups is that we can see Prior's mouth sores and his Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions -- what he calls his "wine-dark kiss of the angel of death" -- vividly.) Kirk's Prior is both the frightened victim and the brave hero. He has been abandoned many times over -- by Louis, by Reagan, by God. And yet as he wastes away he is the vehicle for the movie's sustaining gallows humor -- and there is a lot of it, cloaked in pop cultural references such as "Come Back, Little Sheba" and "The Wizard of Oz."

Playing Prior's betrayer, Louis, Ben Shenkman is fittingly annoying as the self-absorbed lover who's not as different from his despised political targets -- which include Cohn -- as he'd like to think.

Al Pacino has the movie's showboat role, as the hate-mongering, bombastic Cohn. Banging on his multi-line button phone like a hyperactive child at a piano, he spits and yells and preens his ego. It's the kind of flamboyant maniac Pacino is known for playing, but he's never on automatic pilot here -- you know, just showing up to do his Pacino thing and go home. He delivers Cohn's absurd self-justifications and political braggadocio with soul-spewing conviction, yelling, "AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have cancer."

The amazing Streep brings stoical warmth to the entire production, even though her roles are somewhat peripheral. In the opening scene, she's unrecognizable as the elderly Orthodox rabbi at a funeral who speaks with wry contempt about the Old World's drift into the New World -- "In you that journey is," she reminds the younger Jews. Later, she's the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, patiently awaiting the torment and disbarment of the ailing Cohn, who engineered her execution during the McCarthy era. With a pale, Kabuki-like stillness, she sits by his bedside, a vigil that leads to one of the tenderest moments in the movie as she sings to him. And finally, as Joe's Mormon mother, she's an armored woman stripped of all tolerance for human failing. Looking for directions from a bum, she says, "I'm sorry you're psychotic, but just make an effort."

Mary-Louise Parker is also memorable as the fragile Harper, who hides in her apocalyptic visions. Drugged, she retreats to imagined places such as Antarctica that Nichols wisely glazes with semi-realism, to maintain their sense of artificial solace. It is in Harper's pretend worlds that her defenses fail her; only on the "threshold of revelation" can she admit to herself that her husband is gay. Parker's understated delivery tinges these "Alice in Wonderland" travels with a welcome deadpan humor.

As Joe the Mormon, Patrick Wilson is perfectly pent up, a political and social conservative who is at odds with his own gentle heart. He really doesn't seem to know that he'll never be able to bury his gay desires, that his prayer for self-destruction is a bottomless pit.

At one point in its journey to the screen, "Angels" was set to be directed by Robert Altman, whose movies resemble Kushner's play in their overlapping plotting and ensemble casts. But Altman's play-to-movie efforts have verged toward the static, coming off more like filmed theater than movies in their own right. Nichols has managed to make "Angels in America" thrive onscreen, without compromising its intellectual integrity, its timeless anxiety for America's minorities, its heart. Along with Kushner, he has given the movie what Prior is so passionately committed to: "More life."

('Angels in America"; Starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Justin Kirk, Patrick Wilson, Ben Shenkman, Michael Gambon, James Cromwell, Simon Callow, Jeffrey Wright; On HBO; Part 1 airs Sunday, 8-11 p.m.; Part 2 airs next Sunday, 8-11 p.m.; Rating TVMA)

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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