Film Review: The Case Against 8

What could easily have been a yawn-inducing assemblage of dry legalities is instead a profoundly moving, radiantly smart documentary about the fight for gay marriage.

The 2008 battle against California's Proposition 8, which revoked the marriage rights of same-sex couples who had wed in the belief that what they were doing was fully legal, is the basis of this compelling, marvelously intelligent documentary produced by HBO. Co-directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White focus on the protracted legal process which finally invalidated the proposition, as well as on the two couples, gay (Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo), and lesbian (Kris Perry and Sandy Stier), who were chosen by the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) to be key plaintiffs in the case. The filmmakers' great achievement is not making these people's story engaging—admittedly not hard to do, as they are all particularly sympathetic in themselves—but their ability to disseminate and edit all of the courtroom preparation, procedure and findings into something truly fascinating and dramatic.

The unlikely pairing of conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, two lawyers who had opposed each other during the 2000 Bush v. Gore case, to represent the plaintiffs was something not even the most bipartisan fantasist of a screenwriter could have come up with—pure cinematic gold, which the filmmakers mine most profitably. However one may feel about Olson's participation in the Bush case, even his most hardened left-wing haters might come to feel differently about him after seeing the awe-inspiring smarts and fair-mindedness he displays throughout the film. In fact, if ever one needed a strong argument against that often justly popular edict to "kill all the lawyers," The Case Against 8 would serve most effectively.

Trying to do the right thing becomes, for everyone involved, the simple theme of the movie, never an easy prospect. When a large number of members of the queer/liberal community express outrage over Olson's participation, we hear one prominent AFER member sigh, "The fact that we are fighting LGBT groups more than right-wing nut jobs is mind-boggling." But the drama builds as we see the witnesses being carefully prepared and smile at their answers to pointed questions, which merely affirm their deep love for each other and incredulity that such devotion in need of legal recognition could be so threatening to bigots. Kate Amend's lucid editing propels us excitingly into the courtroom as the AFER group enters, filled with trepidation and yet an uncanny kind of confidence. Even the court’s decision to block any broadcast of the trial doesn't get in the way, for Cotner and White's decision to have the parties reading from their own transcripts is the perfect solution, even gaining somewhat in retrospective power.

After the initial victory against Prop. 8, there were the usual, expected appeals by the opposition to invalidate the decision, which, again, were handled by the lawyers with skillful and compassionate aplomb. It's quite amazing how moving this film is, reaching a rollercoaster emotional peak when the plaintiffs give their plainspoken but supremely eloquent public address. Misty eyes and lumps in the throat should be an audience commonplace, exacerbated by the scenes of the two couples finally being officially joined in wedlock, post-trial. As touching as this footage is, with the lesbian newlyweds surrounded by their ecstatic four sons (from previous heterosexual marriages), the film is most affecting in its law-office depiction of ferociously smart and humane minds, tirelessly at work to make such scenes the new normal in this country.

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