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Film Review: ‘The Case Against 8’

Ben Cotner and Ryan White's well-intentioned documentary strikes a rote note of tele-friendly inspirational uplift.

With:

Chad Griffin, Ted Olson, David Boies, Kris Perry, Sandy Stier, Jeffrey Zarrillo, Paul Katami.

Earnest, solid if somewhat plodding at times, “The Case Against 8” follows the successful fight to have California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 overturned as unconstitutional. There are engaging, articulate personalities here that maintain interest through a mountain of strategizing sessions and court reversals, though helmers Ben Cotner and Ryan White strike a rote note of tele-friendly inspirational uplift while risking tedium with too much repetitious content. Winner of a directing prize at Sundance, the docu bows June 23 on HBO, and could score some additional broadcast sales offshore.

In late 2008, the passing of Proposition 8 banned gay marriage in the state of California, just six months after the state Supreme Court legalized it. This popular-vote reversal came as a surprise, since early polls had indicated most residents were in favor of or at least neutral toward same-sex wedlock — the operative word being “were,” until a barrage of advertising funded largely by out-of-state interests (as chronicled by 2010 Sundance docu “8: The Mormon Proposition”) alarmed voters with some blatant distortions suggesting homosexuality would now be “taught” in public schools, and all churches would be forced to perform gay marriages.

In the wake of that defeat, gay-marriage proponents immediately began preparing a fight to overturn the law in court. Chad Griffin and the American Foundation for Equal Rights stirred considerable controversy within and beyond the gay community in their choice of chief counsel for what was sure to be an extremely high-profile case: David Boies and Ted Olson, who had argued on opposing sides in the bitter 2000 Bush vs. Gore presidential election. A leading conservative lawyer for decades, Olson nonetheless insisted he fully supported marriage for all — a stance considered traitorous by many who had previously seen him as an ally, while some in the LGBT community worried he might have signed on only in order to sabotage the battle from the inside.

After an extensive vetting process, two couples, one of each gender, were selected as plaintiffs. Berkeley duo Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, whose 2004 union during a window of legal opportunity had been voided by the policy change, brought to their relationship two sons each from prior heterosexual marriages. The male couple was Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami of Los Angeles, who had wanted to raise children but held off on any plans until they had the general safety net of legal marital status.

Solidly middle-class (though we learn little about their professional lives), these four constituted the “absolutely safe choices” sought to emphasize that LGBT values and family values are often identical. They’re pleasant company, though by the 10th time somebody sheds a grateful tear, we’ve duly gotten the just-ordinary-folk message. The film’s real entertainment value comes from the fun Olson and Boies have working together despite all their ideological differences, and in particular Olson’s boisterous personality.

There’s a whole lot of filmed preparation with and among the vast numbers of lawyers involved in overturning Proposition 8. There are setbacks en route to Sacramento, as when the proposition’s defenders successfully petition to ban broadcast of the court proceedings. (This unfortunately means the subjects have to laboriously reread their testimonies later on for inclusion in the docu.) But there are also windfalls, like the dropping out of nearly all defense witnesses once they realize they’ll have to specify exactly what harm gay marriage would wreak on the general populace. One staunch, high-profile opponent even becomes an outspoken advocate when challenged on this point.

After their day in court finally arrives, the plaintiffs are gratified by the broadest favorable decision they could have hoped for. But “The Case Against 8” continues for some time as appeals are filed and things continue to seesaw for months on end — events that could have been condensed further to greater effect. The couples’ separate City Hall wedding ceremonies are treated as matters of breathless suspense at a point when the pic already feels overlong.

Well intentioned as it is, “The Case Against 8” becomes one of those movies that won’t quit until every last participant has been hugged; given the numerous prior docus on the subject, this one needn’t have stuffed in every last detail trying to be the definitive one. Strangely, however, there’s very little of what would seem a key element: the efforts of the opposing legal team, and the perspectives of Proposition 8 supporters. They needn’t have been given equal screen time, but their scant presence here robs the pic of some needed dramatic contrast.

Assembly is pro if a bit blah, and overly dependent on studio-shot talking heads. Blake Neely’s score strikes a generic inspirational tenor.

Film Review: 'The Case Against 8’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2014. Running time: 112 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary) An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Tripod Media and Moore's Filmed Goods and Services production. Produced by Ben Cotner, Ryan White. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins. Co-producers, Rebekah Fergusson, Jennifer Lawson.

Crew:

Directed by Ben Cotner, Ryan White. Camera (color, HD), Rebekah Fergusson, White, Cotner, Joe Anderson; editor, Kate Amend; music, Blake Neely; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Henry Auerbach.

With:

Chad Griffin, Ted Olson, David Boies, Kris Perry, Sandy Stier, Jeffrey Zarrillo, Paul Katami.

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