The Case Against 8 is a fundamentally conservative film.
This is something of a surprise. It is, after all, a triumphant chronicle of the challenge to California’s Proposition 8 and the restoration of marriage equality in the Golden State. Directors Ryan White and Ben Cotner are hardly shy about their position, either. It is an extended cheer for a major victory on what has become perhaps the defining civil rights issue of our time. On first glance there’s nothing conservative about it.
Yet, as it turns out, the challenge to Proposition 8 involved a whole lot of very traditionalist thinking. White and Cotner begin not with the two gay couples suing the state of California for the right to marry, but rather with the earlier stages of the legal case. This began with LGBT organizations looking for lawyers and plaintiffs to represent their cause. They managed to attract two high-profile attorneys, Ted Olson and David Boies, who famously faced off before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore.
Olson was Bush’s lawyer and has long been a major figure in the Republican Party. His decision to take this case caused something of a ruckus, an early narrative high point in The Case Against 8. White and Cotner paint him as something of an unlikely hero. Marriage, Olson explains, is a conservative value. Republicans, if anything, should be welcoming gays into the fold of the traditional family.
As such, the plaintiffs weren’t picked out of a hat, but rather chosen after a long, rigorous vetting process. Only the most decent, above-board, American couples would fit the mold that this case needed. They ended up with two. Kris Perry and Sandy Stier are the parents of four boys and have been together since 1997. Paul Katani and Jeff Zarrillo live in Los Angeles and have been together since 1998. Both couples are wonderful, charming and undeniably worthy of the right to get married. Their love is universally recognizable, and therefore lends itself to being presented in court. White and Cotner adopt the same strategy for their film. The Case Against 8 so thoroughly embraces the legal team’s mission of rendering gay relationships blandly palatable to a mass audience that it becomes bland itself.
Initially, one gets the sense that White and Cotner are shooting higher. The opening sequence is grand and intellectual, featuring Olson and Boies practicing their arguments. The score suggests John Williams’s music for Lincoln, positioning civil rights law and this particular case alongside the noblest aspirations of justice as an American art. Yet the rest of the film does not reach nearly as high. It becomes about Kris and Sandy, Paul and Jeff, and how normal they are. The talking head footage of the plaintiffs, of which there is a great deal, was even shot in front of the most generic of gray backdrops. Sometimes touching, resonant moments sneak through the rigid, manicured style of the film, but rarely.
At times it seems as if White and Cotner are completely disinterested in the specificity of these relationships, or at the very least the specificity of being gay. There is an entire sequence built up from glossy black-and-white photographs of the couples, set to music and inspirational testimony. It feels like a campaign video from the presidential nominating convention of a political party. Time and again the attractive, still image of family, love and domesticity seems more important to both the legal case and the filmmakers than the deep or complex realities of their lives.
And then they win. It’s a ready-made emotional moment. Yet it also puts into sharp relief how frustrating the previous 100 minutes really are. This case was settled a year ago. There is no suspense here, not for a moment. The case doesn’t need to be re-argued. This was an opportunity for White and Cotner to expand out from the details, to show what it means both for the current LGBT community and its history. Instead, The Case Against 8 is little more than a cinematic rendition of Olson and Boies’s arguments, like a DVD special feature attached to the history of the LGBT rights movement.
The Case Against 8 opens in Los Angeles, New York City and Detroit this Friday. Check the film’s website for more screenings.