A classic case of content overriding form, Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s gay marriage rights doc The Case Against 8 (2014) stirs the emotions thanks to its sympathetic subjects and liberal sensibilities. Who wouldn’t back the film’s gay and lesbian couples, who valiantly fought to regain their married status after California’s Proposition 8 so cruelly stripped it from then? However, what’s arguably most interesting about Cotner and White’s simplistic freedom versus constraint success story (you half-expect a Katy Perry track to kick in at points) is the bond forged between Bush v. Gore sparring partners Ted Olson and David Boies; one a staunch Republican, the other a died-in-the-wool Democrat.
On Election Day 2008, Californians voted to pass the hugely controversial Proposition 8, which not only repealed the right for same-sex couples to marry in the future, but also nullified those unions already legally carried out. A case was quickly put together against the order headed up by Boies and Olson, two attorneys from different sides of the political divide best known for their tussle in the Bush v. Gore voting recount debacle. The plaintiffs this time around were two gay couples, both victims of married status revocation. Shot over the course of five long years as argument is met with counter-argument – predominantly from Christian evangelicals and the Right – the bureaucratic machinations of the American justice system and its chamber of power, the Supreme Court, are candidly shown.
Originally made for HBO – as so many of the American documentaries that reach these shores now are – there’s something undoubtedly televisual about the way The Case Against 8 has been both constructed and presented. That’s not to say that the ultimately uplifting dénouement is dampened (the final outcome of the case will come as a surprise to only the most hermetic of viewers), but it could be said to have been cheapened. Comparable to the way that Martha Shane and Lana Wilson dealt with the counter-argument in their 2013 abortion doc After Tiller, the more moderate members of the opposition have either declined to comment or been whitewashed completely, crudely represented instead by placard-waving hardliners and ignorant Evangelical zealots. Those who remain on the fence are left in limbo.
As has been widely commentated upon in the past, the argument against the right of gay couples to marry is largely a religious one; had Cotner and White pursued a more balanced approach to addressing both sides’ standpoint, the end result may have been something far more timeless. Elsewhere, Boies and Olson often threaten to steal every scene they’re in together, two political creatures so different in terms of background and beliefs that their combined attack against Proposition 8 feels like a small miracle. Their interaction with the plaintiffs always makes for compelling viewing, particularly when role-playing cross-examination (one scene, which swiftly shifts from tears to laughter in seconds, is applause-worthy). It’s in the quieter moments that The Case Against 8 excels – not the melodramatic.
For more info about The Case Against 8, visit dogwoof.com.
Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.