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The good fight 

Wrestling with Angels charts Tony Kushner's art and politics

As humble and human-scaled as its subject, Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner is a rare film biography. Director Freida Lee Mock conveys the importance of being politically engaged, being gay and honoring family, while celebrating Kushner's creativity without reducing him to some sanctifying character that we see in many hagiographic bios.

Kushner is by all appearances a man who hasn't allowed fame, a Pulitzer and movie-star hobnobbing to strip him of his humility.

Actors can become self-important and larger than life, but for a playwright, that separation from the real world would spell certain creative death. Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) films Kushner riding the subway, traveling home to Lake Charles, La., for his father's 80th birthday, schlepping mysterious parcels down the streets of Manhattan and sweating bullets over a forthcoming make-or-break review in the New York Times of Homebody/Kabul. Such ordinary but revealing moments offer a pleasingly understated picture of Kushner's daily routine and interior life.

Mock follows Kushner around on his daily tasks, taking the measure of the man in his relationship to the world. It is hard to miss how such vital connections to the real world fuel Kushner's creativity.

Wrestling with Angels opens with Sept. 11, 2001, an event that brought a confluence of Kushnerian themes into American living rooms: morality, global politics, individual loss, epic devastation. Kushner has built his professional career making drama out of just such profound matters of life and death, whether in "Angels in America" -- his epic, seven-hour 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning "gay fantasia" of AIDS -- or in Homebody/Kabul -- his prescient play about the importance of Afghanistan in the global scheme. His specialty is rendering huge political issues in small-scale, human terms, connecting Kushner to other politically committed playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht or Arthur Miller.

As evidence of that commitment "to do left/progressive art that reaches lots and lots of people," Kushner is shown speaking to groups as small as a New York University drama class and a Berkeley High School assembly, and as large as an antiwar rally in Manhattan on the eve of the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003. There is an incredibly moving segment where Kushner works with children's book author Maurice Sendak on an adaptation of the children's Holocaust opera Brundibar, a segment that illustrates that for all Kushner's hipster cred as an outspoken gay activist, he is also deeply invested in the past, including the way the Holocaust has impacted the world and the lives of his own family.

In these overly cautious times, Kushner is clearly not a man who shies away from hyperbole, likening the Bush administration at various points in Wrestling with Angels to the Nazis and the Taliban. But although Kushner's politics can be exceedingly angry, the man himself, with his soft features, pale skin set against inky curls and avuncular warmth, is sane, reasonable and good-humored. As much as his art, Kushner seems devoted to the artist's mission of examining all sides.

It's a stance his friend, theater director Oskar Eustis, addresses at an antiwar performance days after the United States has invaded Iraq. Mounting a church pulpit in Providence, R.I., Eustis talks about the connection between the theater and politics. "The same emotion that is required for theater to work," Eustis says, "is the emotion that is required for democracy to work: the idea we need to care about each other's experience."

What Mock emphasizes above all in her documentary is that quality of empathy in Kushner's work, along with the belief that art can change the world.

Despite his fury at the state of the world, Kushner is no doomsayer. As he tells a group of Texas Southwestern University students, "As far as I'm concerned, it's an ethical obligation to look for hope."

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