Wrestling with Angels (2006): Freida Lee Mock’s Docu about Playwright Tony Kushner

I wish another director had chronicled the life and times of the vibrant playwright Tony Kushner. Freida Lee Mock’s documentary, Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner, is diffuse, rambling, and fails to deal with some vital issues pertaining to Kushner’s creative and personal life.

An old-fashioned filmmaker, Mock takes the easy route to her subject, following Kushner’s whereabouts in an out of New York, in and out of his desk. Resulting work is a middle-of-the-road film, neither shallow nor deep, neither revelatory nor amusing, while it could have been easily all of the above.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

Running time is not the issue: Docu boasts 102 minutes of covering Kushner’s busy schedule, though more as a celeb-lecturer and active citizen than as one of our most talented playwrights and one of the most actively gay members of New York’s community.

To illustrate my point right away, Mock documents Kushner’s wedding to longtime companion Mark Harris (an E.W. editor), an event attended by Gotham’s elite (director Mike Nichols and wife-TV celeb Diane Sawyer, among others) and covered extensively in the New York Times, but it doesn’t occur to her to ask any questions about gay marriage, which is still a hot-button issue.

“Wrestling With Angels” should have explored Kushners relentless creative struggle to find and express his opinions and to contribute through the power and intimacy of theater to a national discourse on some of our most pressing concerns, including war, race, class, AIDS, gay rights, social justice, and global responsibility in the Middle East.

Instead, the film simply follows Kusher as he dashes around Manhattan from one destination to another (he always seems to be in a hurry), with some coverage of visits to his Hudson River Valley getaway, or Lake Charles, his Louisiana hometown for his father’s 80th birthday. In these episodes, we get glimpses (but no more) of Kushner’s liberal education, suspicion how he always knew he was gay (even as a young boy), and the total acceptance by his Jewish parents.

“Wrestling With Angels” aims to tell the story of a relentlessly creative spirit at work, of how Kushner, raised in the Deep South in Lake Charles, Louisiana, would become an outspoken activist, a spokesperson for outsiders, and one of todays most important playwrights. The film wishes to explore the mystery of creativity, its sources and Kushners plays, set against the moral and political concerns of our times.

Docu takes place against the backdrop of three tumultuous years in American history that are reflected in Kushners plays, from September 11, 2001 to the 2004 Presidential election. The film features acclaimed theater and movie actors in unforgettable and entertaining scenes from Kushners work: Marcia Gay Harden in a gut-wrenching performance as Laura Bush in “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy”; Meryl Streep pleading to God in a reading of Kushners Prayer on AIDS; Emma Thompson crashing through the ceiling as the prophesizing angel in “Angels in America.”

The film is structured around three acts that are meant to encapsulate broad themes of Kushners work. Act I, As A Citizen of the World, expresses Kushners concern with global issues. In scenes from his play on Laura Bush, portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden who reads to dead Iraqi children, and from his play on Afghanistan, “Homebody/Kabul,” Kushner highlights the global responsibility of the U.S. in an age of terrorism.

Act II, titled Mama, Im a Homosexual Mama, shows Kushners interest in national issues, focusing on the AIDS crisis and gay rights, and telling the story of his coming out, the creative arc of “Angels in America,” and his hilarious yet poignant talk on Gay Pride at JP Morgan Chase.

Act III, Collective Action to Overcome Injustice, reflects the influence of Kushners Jewish heritage in his concern for social justice. Scenes from his play on Jewish immigration, the childrens holocaust opera “Brundibar” and the musical Caroline, or Change reflect Kushners belief in collective action to overcome injustice, especially when it comes to children and women.

The longest section covers Kushner’s collaboration with Maurice Sendak on a stage version of the legendary “Brundibar,” a play once performed by Jewish kids in Nazi death camps. This section also stands out since, strangely, Sendak is one of the few commentators in a documentary that lacks any crucial testimony from Kushner’s collaborators, such as Nichols, who made the acclaimed HBO mini-series of his seminal, Pulitzer-Prize winning play, “Angels in America,” or stage director George Wolfe, who had collaborated with Kushner.

Many issues remain uncovered or only superficially touched upon. At one point, Kushner claims that his goal is to become a “popular entertainer,” yet his work points to an utterly cerebral direction. Does Kushner lack self-awareness Recognition of what is the essence of his work

There’s also the issue of to what extent Kushner is mostly a one-achievement playwright. Though he has written half a dozen plays, Kushner is still mostly recognized for one work, alebit a seminal one, Angels in America, his play about AIDS set during the Reagan era that went on to become an Emmy-winning miniseries on HBO.

The most revelatory segment examines Kushners frustrating experiences in producing and moving to Broadway Homebody/Kabul, his play about a woman visiting Afghanistan. Though the reviews are mixed, Kushner gets some notoriety for writing a timely piece, and speaks about his interest in Afghanistan and the countrys link with the Bush administration.

The film’s structure, despite division into chapters with titles, leaves a lot to be desired. About two-thirds of the contents consist of Kushner’s political credo. He’s a lively speaker, but do we have to see all those reaction shots of admiring crowds applauding every one-liner.

A large proportion of the footage is staged directly for the camera, and there’s also too much praise and premature adoration. Maurice Sendak compares Kushner to Tolstoy, and his father makes a number of references to composer Tchaikovsky, who was, of course, gay.

The last–and most boring–chapter focuses exclusively on his latest play, Caroline, or Change. Its unfortunate that director Mock saw fit to devote so much attention to huge chunks of the play while glossing over his activism, including his trip to Florida to combat voter fraud during the 2004 Presidential Elections.

Occasionally, “Wrestling With Angels” captures Kushner’s hilarious humor and ferocious intelligence. But overall, the film is a missed opportunity to fully explore what it means to be very Jewish, very gay, very political, very ambitious, and at least a bit frustrated Kushner proves to be too complex and fascinating a figure for a director like Mock. The best compliment I can pay her film is that I remain intrigued by Kushner and wish to get to know him better, both as an artist and a person.

Finally, it’s fair to raise the question to what extent Kushner, a writer in his 50s, deserves a feature-length docu Wrestling with Angels strikes me as a premature tribute to an artist who’s still struggling to make his voice heardand count.

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