Kushner documentary takes middle of the road

“Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner” succeeds above all in capturing the renowned writer and activist in his milieu.

That milieu, however, is not a single locale but an extraordinarily varied panoply of environments. Kushner is a Southern liberal, a New York intellectual and a man of the theater who’s also avowedly Jewish, openly gay and unwaveringly political.

As such, he has much to say on a range of hot-button issues. Unfortunately, Freida Lee Mock’s bland documentary isn’t an urgent study of a provocative American artist’s role in contentious times but a flattering, soft-centered portrait.

Although it’s a disappointment for viewers familiar with Kushner’s work and stature, the film provides a useful introduction for those who don’t know him —or wish to be reminded that a person of ideas can still have an impact in this anti-intellectual period.

The film, which screened in both the Frameline and Jewish Film Festivals this summer and opens in the Bay Area this weekend, follows Kushner from the aftermath of 9/11 through the 2004 electionS, a singularly eventful stretch. He quickly emerges as a political animal deeply engaged with life who challenges and inspires his audiences—from theaters to university commencement ceremonies to book signings — to participate with equal fervor.

For all his intensity, Kushner is a humorous and unexpectedly warm speaker. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Angels in America” diligently composes every speech in advance — no improvised, off-the-cuff remarks for him, even at his father’s birthday party — yet he has the presence and ability to erase the feeling that he’s reading a text, and connect with his listeners.

The most interesting section in “Wrestling With Angels” is Kushner’s trip to the area in Louisiana where he grew up. He gives a tour of his synagogue, and viewers get a clear sense of the ethical and social responsibilities with which he was inculcated.

The lengthy chunk devoted to his poorly reviewed “Caroline, or Change,” a play which centers on the relationship between a Southern Jewish boy and the family’s black maid, is less compelling.

Mock seems less interested in exploring Kushner’s Jewishness than his method of collaborating with the composer. The same goes for the extended sequence on Kushner’s work with Maurice Sendak on the Holocaust-themed “Brundibar.”

Both passages go on and on, with middling payoffs. The effect is that “Wrestling With Angels” feels as if it was inflated to feature length, to justify a theatrical release, when it would have been better as a one-hour TV doc.

Mock finished shooting before Kushner completed the script for “Munich,” so his role in Steven Spielberg’s controversial movie isn’t addressed. But Kushner had previously been outspoken in his stance on Israel, so it’s curious that “Wrestling With Angels” declines to tackle this incendiary subject.

There’s a brief scene at a book signing for the 2003 anthology, “Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict,” which Kushner co-edited. But that’s it, epitomizing the film’s aversion to heated debate.

Obviously, the title “Wrestling With Angels” merges the book with Kushner’s legit theater masterpiece. But it also invokes Jacob’s biblical tiff with God, a heart-stopping bout of legendary proportions.

That’s the kind of battle that Tony Kushner willingly takes on. This movie gives us just enough of that man to place him in the firmament of Jewish heroes.

“Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner” opens Friday, Dec. 1 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.