HBO Movie on Prop 8 Marriage Equality Case Fails As Documentary


The Case Against 8/HBO

Premiering on Monday, HBO's The Case Against 8 is an intermittently moving bunch of essentially mindless goo. Yet that's unlikely to seem very relevant to marriage-equality supporters who want to enjoy a victory lap. Few modern American political stories are as happy-making—and, let's hope, prefatory—as the Supreme Court's 5-4 thumbs-down on California's homophobic Proposition 8 on June 26 of last year, so why not celebrate?

A year after the fact, however, any documentary worth viewers' time ought to aspire to more than providing birthday candles for us to blow out. That "us" is, of course, exclusionary, something you'd hardly guess from co-directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White's simple-minded assumption that everybody tuning in will share their euphoria. Don't misunderstand my own POV, because I did and do. I just don't think it would have killed the filmmakers to grapple a bit with the heretical notion that not every supporter of Prop 8—which passed with seven million votes in 2008, the same year bluer-than-blue Cali went big for Barack Obama—was a self-evidently wicked or easily manipulated creepazoid.

For all sorts of Americans--not the most sophisticated ones, but that doesn't make 'em evil--the arrival of same-sex marriage rips a formerly reliable social and cultural reality's fabric into shreds. Especially since we, y'know, won and are winning this one, and faster than anyone dared imagine—God love generational demographics, baby—why not acknowledge as much, maybe even with a smidgen of compassion for that aging crew's unnerved confusion? Not only do they rate more in my book than the hearty "Fuck 'em" a good many of you are doubtless eager to bellow in reply, but "Fuck 'em" doesn't strike me as the brainiest way to mitigate our co-citizens' bewilderment—not to mention resentment—as the world turns upside down. By implication, that's pretty much all the filmmakers have to say on the subject.

Cotner and White's ace in the hole—and really, The Case Against 8's only claim on viewer interest—is the apparently unfettered access they had to the legal team that won the case, headed by the famously unlikely duo of veteran liberal attorney David Boies and George W. Bush's former Solicitor General, Ted Olson—Boies's onetime antagonist in the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. Both men are hugely likable and winningly shrewd, what with Boies's uncanny resemblance to a wilier George McGovern—he's the kind of lawyer who could slice apple pie with a shiv and twinkle as he did it—and Olson's good humor about his supposed apostasy. Yet that's just why you crave more than the banter that ends up substituting for insight into the pair's respective journeys to this contest, as when Olson says his fellow right-wingers will understand his attitude better once he gets a chance to talk to them—and we never see any such faceoff, which would have been pretty darn fascinating.

The two same-sex couples selected as Boies's and Olson's ideal plaintiffs—lesbian partners Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier and XX-chromosomal live-togethers Paul Katani and Jeffrey Zarrillo—are awfully winning as well. Of course they are, since it's the reason they got picked as the best-foot-forward arguments for marriage equality in the first place. It's no knock at these four that, right down to their increasing camaraderie, they're sometimes reminiscent of reality-show contestants, albeit in a much nobler cause. That's how the culture works now, and you'd love to know more about the winnowing process. Imagine being rejected as the legal battle's human faces, after all.

But The Case Against 8 doesn't take much interest in unpacking the nuts and bolts of what was—and had to be—a carefully planned, not exactly grass-roots endeavor. Though actor/director Rob Reiner, once All in The Family's Meathead and the major Hollywood honcho behind the creation of the American Foundation For Equal Rights—the outfit that provided the resources to fight Prop 8—does pop up on-screen a few times, he's presented as a fatherly "You Too Can Start A Forest Fire" Smokey the Bear, not the astute mover and shaker he is in real life. Nor do Cotner and White examine the pro-Prop 8 campaign's financing or organization. Whether they were trad-values zealots or wedge-issue opportunists, the measure's proponents are just an undifferentiated gang of Blue Meanies from the movie's perspective.

In fact, the only pro-8 spokesperson who gets serious face time here—as opposed to turning up in news footage—is David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute For American Values, who did a 180-degree turn on marriage equality after Boies demolished him on the stand in appeals court. That's to his considerable credit, but what about everybody who's still unreconciled to like-a-horse-and-carriage same-sex wedding bells? Both morally and constitutionally, they may not have a leg to stand on, but the culture at large was on their side until, figuratively speaking, around a week ago.

Before you jump in with the usual "Fuck 'em," recall that SCOTUS gutted the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act the same week Prop 8 wound up in history's dustbin. So picture a triumphalist Fox News documentary on the VRA decision that featured just one African American talking head—and it belonged to, say, Thomas Sowell. You may now have an inkling of why movies as prematurely smug as The Case Against 8 get right-wingers howling about liberal indoctrination. As for me, if I got choked up anyway during the movie's climax—the Kerry-Stier and Katani-Zarrillo nuptials after their four-year fight in the courts—whadja expect? I always cry at weddings, and maybe at some more than others in the bargain.





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