Review: STONEWALL (2015)

And here’s one of those not-great misfires of a movie that will probably wind up with a (slightly) better reputation than it deserves (later) largely because the initial response will be seen (by some) as much more negative (perhaps even “unfairly” so) than was warranted. So much of modern film-discourse is built around pre-reactions, space-filling hypothetical “analysis” (read: guessing) and hot-takes that this becomes a recurring issue – the transformation of “bad” movies into “better than expected” by hyped-up early condemnation.

Fair or not, the knives seemed to have been out for Roland Emmerich’s STONEWALL pretty-much since it was announced; first based on the idea that a blockbuster/action-specialist shouldn’t be tackling a historical drama about gay activism (that the ID4 and DAY AFTER TOMORROW director is himself a gay activist was evidently not as widely known as I’d thought), later based on the version of the story he had chosen to tell: Namely an “eyewitness to history” historical-fiction approach wherein the events of the infamous riots popularly-cited as the “birth” of the modern gay-rights movement are presented to the audience from the perspective of a fictional character rather than any of the real figures who participated in the real thing; the final straw being that said audience-avatar was to be a strapping, classically-handsome Midwestern teen-heartthrob type (Jeremy Irvine) whose journey to accepting his own gay self-identity occurs in-tandem with the events leading up to the riots.

SPOILERS after the jump:

Whereas the Stonewall Riots in “popular history” were, for years mainly framed as a moment of unity; in recent decades they’ve gained renewed life as a point of symbolic schism within LGBTQ activism. Today, Stonewall is discussed less often in terms of it’s meaning to the early gay pride movement than it is in regards to how the fact that the first wave of rioting/protesting was spearheaded by trans women and people of color whose contributions were subsequently minimized by the co-opting of the events as a rallying-point for “mainstream” (read: white, male) gay culture.

In this respect, then, the indictment of Emmerich’s approach is less that he’s opted to “print the legend” and more that he’s not printing the right legend. And while one can’t possibly not be sympathetic to the aggrieved parties here (the various erasures in question here are a serious problem in the reality of the matter and a major component of why the movie doesn’t work), I also can’t help but wonder if any version of STONEWALL that, regardless of quality, wasn’t explicitly all/only about condemning said erasure (which would be a wholly legit film to make in it’s own right, just so we’re clear) would’ve been welcomed at this point – regardless of who directed and how they chose to tell the story.

Not that it matters beyond theory at this point, since the film indeed is an unfortunate misfire and its tone-deafness to its own use of historic-symbolism is a big reason why; but I still can’t shake the sense that more than a few critical minds were made up before a frame of film had been projected. Still, since whatever was being attempted hasn’t worked, the point is largely moot.

Again, I take no issue with anyone so personally affronted by the manner in which the story is being told that they refuse to even bother engaging it on any other level (not that I, the exact opposite of “marginalized” in every conceivable way, would have a “right” to in the first place.) But, frankly, the ways in which STONEWALL goes wrong (and also right, here and there) run deeper than which details have been fudged and which figures have been ommitted. It’s ultimately a failure, but a sincerely-mounted and fascinating one.

The key problem, on a technical level, is that the film can’t find any sense of cohesion. Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz are going for big, sprawling, multi-character, high-emotion historical melodrama here (think TITANIC), and if there’s one thing that consistently torpedoes works in that genre it’s an inability to make all the moving parts work together. There are a lot of threads criss-crossing the narrative here: The personal journey of Irvine’s Danny Winters, the exploits of a group of young homeless hustlers led by Johnny Beauchamp’s Ray/Ramona (a scene-stealing performance that come close to rescuing the movie), political/gangland conspiracies surrounding the mob-owned Stonewall bar itself, Ron Perlman as a brutal kidnapping-prone pimp, power-struggles within the corrupt police precinct charged with managing “business” on Christopher Street, Johnathan Rhys Meyers’s would-be Mattachine Society order-keeper, Ray’s unrequitted pining for Danny, the fleeting presence of Marsha P. Johnson, Danny’s secondary struggle to secure attendance at Columbia, the death of Judy Garland, etc… and very little of it ever comes together; with each plot-transition feeling more like slices of six or seven different movies (some more compelling than others) being shuffled around in an attempt to make “more” translate into “epic.”

But, if we’re being charitable, it can be said that the final film is a case of two disparate main storylines – Danny’s journey and the drama surrounding Stonewall itself – that fail to come together. They never form a genuinely-meaningful parallel, always leaving one feeling like a distraction from the other, and thus The Moment where they’re supposed to converge and drive the emotional climax doesn’t gel. You can see, mechanically, how everything is supposed to build to a crescendo wherein Danny embraces himself not only as gay but as a gay-revolutionary; but when it arrives it feels false. And while a big part of why is because it’s impossible to ignore that actual heroes are being nudged aside for a made-up one… the fact is it still wouldn’t work dramatically even if that somehow wasn’t an issue.

Here’s the thing: While too symbolically-problematic to likely ever be “acceptable” for this specific story, the “Danny-as-POV” aspect makes a certain amount of technical sense. It’s clear from the opening frames that Emmerich is aiming for message-movie territory here: unconcerned with accuracy to the point of self-parody, the goal here isn’t even so much to commemorate Stonewall itself but rather to send audiences home in an afterglow of righteous, fist-pumping “get off your ass and do something!” fervor; and framing the story around a near-blank protagonist’s transformation from self-preserving survivor to community-minded activist is a surefire way to do that.

In fact, in that regard even the “whitewashing” makes a certain amount of mechanical sense – the level of naivete about the way of the world required for Danny’s role as the reciever of lessons effectively demands that he be a clueless rural white kid in this scenario: If he were any further marginalized, it would be unbelievable for him to arrive on Christopher Street so lacking in worldliness so as to spur the other characters to explain their world and ways to him/us. That doesn’t make it “okay,” but you can see the reasons for it to have occured beyond simplistic presumptions of malice.

Yes, as many had worried, the film posits Danny as throwing the “first brick” in the riot, but he doesn’t pick it up himself: It’s thrust into his hand by another character as a “put up or shut up” moment wherein Danny, here more than anywhere else positioned as walking Golden Boy metaphor for the entirety of “apolitical” America and American gays of the era specifically, is forced to choose between Mattachine slow-build politicking and radical upheaval as the right path for himself and His People – and yes, because I wasn’t exaggerating about the melodrama here being TITANIC-level hyper-earnest cheese, this actually plays out with Rhys Meyers and Beauchamp shouting “DO IT!” and “DON’T!” at him from opposite sides of the street like those movies where two kids fight over ownership of a puppy.

(For what it’s worth, I cringed on-reflex when Danny threw the brick – an action that many accounts and popular-narrative typically attribute to Johnson – but in narrative/character context the moment makes sense. But having him then turn around, immediately-transformed, and become the first character in the film to raise a fist and shout “GAY POWER!” is a tone deaf, deflating decision. It would’ve been more appropriate and powerful if he’d thrown, stayed in-character with some “Oh crap, what’d I just do?” yokel-beffudlement and then find strength as Ray and the others rallied around him and started the chant.)

This sort of stuff is, believe it or not, the best and worst parts of the project. Turning complex events/ideas into stark clashes between goodies and baddies to drive The Point home is Emmerich’s narrative stock in trade – lest we forget his recent (under-appreciated) WHITE HOUSE DOWN, wherein a grab-bag of progressive policy-messages are wedded to a scenario wherein a fictional version of President Obama battles a terrorist strike-team comprising the entire scope of American right-wing ideology from pro-war Senators to white-supremascists to Snowden-esque techno-libertarians. Unfortunately, the unfocused screenplay makes all these mechanics for naught – a lot of the “worldbuilding” winds up as dead-ends, and even then there are too many scenes setting up other threads where our “hero” isn’t even involved.

Meanwhile, trying to give Danny an inner-life and backstory beyond metaphor/stand-in turns out to be a resource hog on the more interesting parts of the movie. It’s clear that Emmerich and Baitz have keyed in on the character at a very personal, visceral level (like most well-intentioned misfires, STONEWALL seems a case of decisive-clarity being impeded by filmmakers operating in full-blown, heart-on-sleeve, bleeding onto the text earnestness), but trying to make him a three-dimensional character weakens his ability to function as a symbolic vessel in the “other half” of the movie.

It doesn’t help that “Danny’s story” is where the film decides to drop any last remaining pretense to subtlety in establishing its moral axis: The poor kid isn’t simply bounced from his home after being outed at school (complete with finding an already-packed suitcase waiting on his bed); he’s “caught” in a tryst with the hero quarterback of the football team that just happens to be coached by Danny’s own father (really!) who, when confronting his son, accuses Danny of seducing “his quarterback” as a way to hurt him. Yeesh!

What’s frustrating is, even as the parts never really click into place there are individual moments where you can see the better movie STONEWALL wants to be. The lack of fusion between Danny the Character and Danny the Metaphor fails him, but Irvine is a strong presence in both versions. Beauchamp is legitimately great, carrying huge sections of the film on his shoulders and infusing the world-building business with real energy and elevating every other performer he shares a scene with to the point where you have to wonder why Ray isn’t the main character – especially since he also starts out even more politically-averse than Danny. Relative newcomer Vladimir Alexis impresses as Queen Cong, another of Ray’s posse. The production design and cinematography are pretty terrific, centering the aesthetic appropriately between gauzy Norman Rockwell mythic-history and sanguine oversaturation.

The riot itself, particularly when it sticks to history (“Why don’t you guys do something!?” occurs as it does in most accounts, and makes for a big moment), is unquestionably compelling – even though we only get to see the first night. And yes, even though it’s also one of the goofiest things to happen in the entire movie, Ray and Danny’s crew facing down an advancing phalanx of armed riot-control cops by forming a chorus-girl kickline (I honestly have no idea if this is drawn from anything real) and belting out a playfully-filthy power-anthem is pretty-much exactly what I wanted out of the Roland Emmerich version of this story, for better or for worse.

From where I sit, this is all much more “silly” than maliciously-offensive (though somehow also not silly enough, given that Emmerich’s other historical-fiction entries are legitimate gonzo camp classics)

In the end, while not forgiving the film it’s many shortcomings, it largely left me feeling bad for Emmerich, who clearly wanted to make this work and had described STONEWALL in the past as a 20-year dream project. I’ve referenced TITANIC a few times in describing the film’s tone, but in terms of net-results it has more in common with Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK or Levinson’s TOYS – other films that sat as long-desired “passion projects” from great filmmakers but emerged as overbaked, unfocused, overwrought and (perhaps) too long-overthought mistakes. Sometimes, you can sit the egg so long that what hatches just doesn’t smell right.

I absolutely believe Emmerich has wanted to make this movie for almost two decades… I also believe it’s clear he didn’t update his thinking or approach to it in all that time. 20 years ago, STONEWALL would’ve been a revolutionary culture-bomb (“G-g-gay stuff!? Gay p-p-power!? As a mainstream-aspiring crowd-pleaser!?”) that would today be analyzed as “of it’s time, but problematic.” Arriving today, it’s too little, too late, too focused on the wrong stories.

Too bad.

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