“Stonewall” is the kind of movie I dream of getting. It's a splashy historical film by Roland Emmerich concerning LGBT history, a topic conspicuously absent from my social studies curriculum in high school, and the first trailer appears to understand that many viewers won't know what the Stonewall riots are. I appreciate its didactic intent the way I appreciated “Milk,” the otherwise boilerplate biopic of Harvey Milk that gave Sean Penn the chance to impress the hell out of me.
But I can't muster up excitement beyond casual respect for “Stonewall.” Check out the first trailer.
Here are five reasons I'm under-enthused (so far! — I'm willing to be wrong!).
1. The protagonist is the most boring character in the whole trailer.
The movie centers on Jeremy Irvine as Danny, a recent transplant to New York who befriends radicals and finds himself at Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn during the early hours of June 28, 1969, when gay customers clashed with police in a pivotal series of riots. Here's an idea: Can we just focus on the actual radicals and not some “country bumpkin” (Emmerich's words, not mine) who learns about gay issues through boring expositional dialogue from more interesting characters? It reminds me of the problem with “Dallas Buyers Club”: Though the starring character was compelling, he was not a model figure of change the way, say, folks like Rayon (Jared Leto's character) were. That movie, like this one, offers a pedantic lens through which to process tumult.
2. It looks like “Milk” without a brilliant performance.
With all due respect to Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it's hard to turn in a scintillating performance when “Stonewall” teems with dialogue like, “This is what we're fighting!” It's too simple. The trailer turns a real civil rights struggle into good guys v. bad guys, and that's not an enlightening way to present real history or cinematic characters.
3. The Obama narration feels stilted and obligatory.
What's with Barack's narration? It's as if the movie is saying, “This is an important event because your current president namedropped it briefly.” While that's a salient moment of progress, it seems like an uninspired way to frame a story of gay uprising. Couldn't we have gotten a gay narrator here? Maybe a soundbite from Vito Russo, the integral gay activist and archivist whose speeches were filled with more rancor and wit than anything in this trailer?
4. It's too pretty.
My one problem with HBO's “The Normal Heart” was how everybody in it looked like a citizen of 2015. Look at documentary footage from the '60s; gay men (of all ages and races) looked a bit different then. You weren't terribly likely to find scores of gay dudes with taut, trim One Direction bodies. This trailer mimics that error and even bathes it a sepia Abercrombie glaze. I understand that movies should be things you want to look at, but the audience for this movie wants to look at authenticity first and foremost.
5. Stonewall is not just about “faggot.”
Yep, “faggot” is still a bad word. An ugly one. But this trailer makes that slur seem like an all-powerful oppositional force. Watching a cop growl, “What are you looking at, faggot?” like a bandit of the Old West feels like something from a TV movie, not an incisive film depicting real-life events. It's my belief that movies chronicling historical events should make its subject seem like more than an obvious candidate for film adaptation. So far, “Stonewall” seems like an average underdog tale shoehorned into an under-discussed chapter of civil rights history.
“Stonewall” is in theaters September 25.