Here's the long and the short of it: This six-hour miniseries from director Mike Nichols doesn't know when to quit. And I didn't want it to end.
Abridgement is clearly not what Tony Kushner had in mind in adapting his two-part play for TV. Why think small? The drama won a Pulitzer Prize and numerous Tony Awards in the '90s. It's searching, witty, lacerating, poetic, profound—and, yes, overstuffed.
At the center of the story is a triangle involving Prior (Justin Kirk), a gay man with AIDS; Louis (Ben Shenkman), the lover who abandons Prior out of fear; and Joe (Patrick Wilson), the conservative chief clerk to a federal judge, who inches out of the closet and takes up with Louis. New York stage actors Kirk, Shenkman and Wilson all give extraordinary performances, as does Jeffrey Wright as the flamboyant, incisive Belize. But if you want big names, they're here at their best. Al Pacino is justified in pulling out all the stops as Roy Cohn, a right-wing legal pit bull and real-life AIDS victim in fierce denial of his homosexuality. Meryl Streep is astonishing as a wizened rabbi, Joe's straight-forward Mormon mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the convicted spy who haunts her old tormentor Cohn.
Now to the cavils. In addition to playing a kind nurse and a homeless crone, Emma Thompson portrays an angel who crashes into Prior's fevered dreams and fires his mind and loins. The angel stays longer than I would wish, and I'm not entirely sure what she's talking about. I also would prefer not to accompany Joe's troubled wife (well played by Mary-Louise Parker) on her hallucinatory trip to Antarctica. But we must take this magnum opus as it is, because to miss it is out of the question.