POV, the outstanding documentary program on PBS, marks the close of its 20th season with Wrestling With Angels, a profile of playwright Tony Kushner by Academy Award-winning director Freida Lee Mock. Mock’s documentary, which premiered in January 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, follows Kushner from 2001 to 2004 and portrays a writer who earnestly believes in being an engaged citizen and is an engaging, dynamic artist.
Mock’s relatively uninflected style employs no intrusive narrator voice to lead the audience along and lets Kushner speak for himself when his friends, colleagues, and works aren’t speaking for him. But the jumpy structure tends to undercut some of the most fascinating ideas that drive the playwright and his work, and it’s disappointing that a nearly two-hour documentary doesn’t allow for much depth in examining some of Kushner’s more provocative ideas.
The result is a good cross-section of all the elements that comprise the life of Tony Kushner, but the juxtaposition of these elements sometimes seems capricious. For instance, most of the first “Act” (titled “Citizen of the World”) revolves around the production of Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul, which delved into the world of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Kushner researched and wrote the play before September 11, 2001, and he responds to the notion that he was uniquely prescient in the matter by saying, “It wasn’t impossible to know … Even a playwright, someone who’s not a specialist in foreign affairs, could take a look around the planet and say ‘This country is going to blow up in our faces.’”
In other clips Kushner is shown talking about geopolitics and foreign policy and speaking out against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. So when Kushner is shown before opening night of the play walking in a park and saying “This is the most appalling, barbaric system imaginable” one might be forgiven for expecting the “barbaric system” in question to be something more life-threatening, oppressive, and rights-trampling than the monolithic power of The New York Times Arts reviewer to destroy a play. This is “the most appalling, barbaric system imaginable” ever? Really? The fault here does not lie with Tony Kushner, who no doubt can tell the difference between Hitler, Stalin, and Frank Rich, but with a documentary director who can’t. The moment is unintentionally funny, and while it does round out Kushner’s character (he’s clearly not a dull ideologue), it unfortunately saps the power out of all the important things that Kushner just finished saying.
In a similar vein, we spend as much time on a visit to Tony Kushner’s “fat counselor” as with a panel talking about Wrestling With Zion, a controversial and thought-provoking book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Kushner co-edited. Almost as soon as Kushner is done mentioning how momentous this issue is, the director cuts away to the next act, which follows Kushner’s childhood in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Maybe this film should be retitled Wrestling with Doughnuts. (A battle Kushner is currently winning.)
Mock seems to be trying to cram a whole biography and bibliography into this film, but the result is an unfocused documentary that is lacking a point of view and seems incapable of handling much depth. But if the result is a sampler platter, it’s still worth seeing, especially the biting satire in the excerpt from Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, which features Marcia Gay Harden as Laura Bush reading from The Brothers Karamazov to dead Iraqi children. It’s poignant, it’s funny, and it’s thought-provoking, and if you want more of that you’ll have to get it from Tony Kushner himself. •
Wrestling With Angels
Wed, Dec 12 9:00 p.m.
Sat, Dec 15 2:30 a.m.