Being that it’s called Stonewall, the site of a landmark 1969 gay rights protest in New York City, you might assume that Roland Emmerich’s new film (written by Jon Robin Baitz) is all about this historic event: how it started, the major players, the lead-up to and aftermath of, etc. A sort of gay rights Selma. You’d be surprised, then, to find that for much of its running time, Stonewall is a coming-of-age tale about a beautiful young gay man named Danny. Danny is from Indiana.
Danny, played by War Horse‘s Jeremy Irvine, has brought his perfect hair and all-American looks (but not accent — he still sounds British when he’s mad) to Christopher Street, trying to understand his place in the world as a gay man on the cusp of a revolution, both in gay thinking and in society’s treatment of gay people. As Danny acquaints himself with some of the key people and places in the late ’60s New York City gay subculture, he becomes something of a Forrest Gump character, a fictional ingenue bumbling his way through the real history of the gay rights movement. Forrest was dumb but fast, and a ping-pong prodigy; Danny has incredible lips and cheekbones, and looks like a human Ken doll. Stonewall‘s LBJ moment comes when Danny gets strong-armed by a real Christopher Street hustler named Ed Murphy (played here by Ron Perlman) into turning a trick for a powerful man who it’s strongly implied is J. Edgar Hoover.
Hokey as it might sound, having a dopey stand-in through whose eyes we can try to navigate this world is actually an appealing conceit. Society doesn’t want you, so you become part of a insular society that, on one side, takes care of its own, because they have no one else to turn to, but on the other, is thoroughly infiltrated by cheats, hustlers, and predators, who know you have no one else to turn to. The setting is so fraught, compelling, and complex that it benefits from the lucid navigation a doe-eyed protagonist and a healthy dose of cheese can provide.
Stonewall‘s main conflict, in fact, isn’t between heroic protesters and tyrannical police (though that element is certainly present), it’s mostly between rebel gays — cross-dressers who despise the square world that has ostracized them, proud freaks — and more mainstream gays who are convinced that society will come to accept them if only they act respectable enough (wear a suit, stop stealing and prostituting, etc). The groups are represented here by the gang of trick-turning gutter punks who adopt Danny when he first comes to New York, and a rich, intense, liberal gay activist named Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who tries to recruit Danny as both a sexual and political protege.
The idea of portraying radicalism vs. reasoned civil disobedience isn’t a new one. (The entire X-Men universe is built on the same conflict, with Magneto as a stand-in for Malcolm X and Xavier as Martin Luther King, more or less.) But here it feels universal rather than derivative. This kind of conflict is best when it isn’t simplistic; the best thing about Selma was that Martin Luther King wasn’t depicted as a saint willing to martyr himself for the cause of equality. He was just as impatient for change as the more militant leaders and had specific ideas on how to bring that about (and wanted to do it faster than LBJ). Likewise, it’s easy to depict the more militant left as sexy and pure, but you could also make a convincing case that all those groups espousing revolution, far from advancing their cause, actually drove the country into the waiting, greasy arms of Richard Nixon†.
Stonewall isn’t anywhere near that complex, though early on it seems like it might try to be. The film sets up a compelling conflict between Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the gutter punks (led by beautiful Puerto Rican cross-dresser Ray, played by Jonny Beauchamp), where it allows us to root for either side. But it’s so clumsy in its execution that it feels like someone set up an ornate chess set and then just smashed a watermelon on it.
Stonewall is oddly compelling when it’s trying to be a gay Forrest Gump. As a history of Stonewall, it’s confused, strange, and a little insulting. Having Danny throw the first brick at the Stonewall riots is a bit like when Marty McFly goes back in time and steals rock ‘n’ roll from Chuck Berry, taking history away from the real participants. At least in Back to the Future this was deliberately played for laughs. In Stonewall, Danny throws the brick and shrieks “Gay Power!” and it’s supposed to be a triumphant moment. Part of the problem is, Jeremy Irvine’s acting is passable when he’s understated, but he’s really bad at “angry.” He’ll rocket from even keel to shrieking tantrum so fast it’s bewildering. And kind of sad and funny, like a six-year-old doing a Pacino impression.
The bigger issue, though, is that Danny works better as an observer. If he’s too active a participant, you have a tone problem. There’s a reason Forrest Gump didn’t fire the first shot at Kent State. When the two strands of Stonewall come together, they completely strangle each other (and not in a sexy way).
There’s also the issue of Roland Emmerich depicting rioters trying to burn police alive as a sexy good time, or an outtake from Rent. But that’s a whole other essay.
You might think Stonewall would be a chance to tell a more personal story for Emmerich, who is an interesting story himself. An out gay man who’s been wildly successful directing what many think of as very masculine genres: sci-fi action and disaster movies. What multitudes has this man been hiding underneath all those layers of CGI water, snow, lava, and alien plasma guns all these years? Interesting question, but the answer, it turns out, is, not much.
If anything, Stonewall only confirms what’s been Roland Emmerich’s shtick all along: creating simple, family stories about good-looking people against the backdrop of a huge event. It was an alien invasion in Independence Day, the Mayan apocalypse in 2012, a new ice age in The Day After Tomorrow, and in Stonewall, it’s a gay rights protest. The central problem with Stonewall is that a gay rights protest isn’t an act of God. It’s an act of man. And in Stonewall, it’s an act of Danny, which is all kinds of wrong.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.