The play “Execution of Justice,” written by Emily Mann in the mid-’80s, was an effort to make sense of a jury verdict that confounded a country and caused a riot in San Francisco. Since then, baffling verdicts seem to have become the rule rather than the exception, and screenwriter Michael Butler’s loose adaptation of the play, rather than examining the trial, delves instead into the mind of the perpetrator, transforming an ensemble docu-drama into a more traditionally focused bio-pic, a vehicle for star and exec producer Tim Daly. Although the provocative subject matter and the robust style of director Leon Ichaso make the film sporadically compelling, it never gels into a satisfying whole.
In November 1978, Dan White, a city supervisor in San Francisco, shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the country. White’s lawyers presented what came to be known as the “Twinkie Defense,” claiming their client had temporarily lost his mind because of too much junk food.
Despite what appeared to be a clear-cut case of first-degree murder, White was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter, and a riot erupted in the city. Released from prison only five years later, White brought closure to the case when he committed suicide.
Tim Daly is well-cast in the role of Dan White. In staccato style, well-edited by Garry Karr, we are shown brief glimpses of White’s past, all connected to how very all-American he was: He was a policeman before he became a fireman like his father, married the daughter of a fireman, excelled at baseball, and so on.
But we are also shown the darker side of Dan White: His mother and his wife both urge him to seek psychological help for his moodiness, and Daly is not very subtle in showing us White’s angry frustration at struggling to pay his family’s bills.
This is certainly a man who seems on the edge. We’re seeing Dan White not so much from his own point of view, but from that of his defense attorneys.
When White is elected to the Board of Supervisors, he seems to befriend Milk, only to feel betrayed when Milk votes on the opposite side of an issue.
It’s inevitable that, by focusing on a single perspective, the political will become conflated into the personal. But it’s odd that the filmmakers don’t take advantage of the more obvious and basic conflict that made Milk and White natural enemies: Milk was the gay activist, White the Irish Catholic who felt San Francisco was going down the tubes. This clear dichotomy in these points of view gave the play its central conflict.
But in this telepic, while the basic trappings of their differences are present, White is robbed of his fundamental convictions.
As a result, he comes across as vulnerable and child-like, which was intended, but also as exceedingly stupid, smiling vacuously whenever someone asks him about anything of political substance.
It’s one thing to communicate that White was out of his element as a politician, but it’s another to suggest that he shouldn’t have graduated elementary school.
White ultimately remains a very mysterious figure, an odd mixture of Travis Bickel and Forrest Gump. But this seems deliberate.
Despite some mis-steps, Daly’s work is an ambitious attempt at asking lots of questions without providing any answers. This characterization keeps the viewer off balance, and gives the film a certain disturbing allure.