1. Stonewall misses the point of the Stonewall riots in almost the exact same way that Pearl Harbor missed the point of Pearl Harbor. That’s not a comparison I make lightly. Pearl Harbor turned one of the most seminal moments in American history into the pretext for a lame story about two white schmucks fighting over a girl. (The best part was that the second half of Michael Bay’s 2001 disaster is essentially the two guys and their friends Getting Revenge. Take that, Japan! That’ll teach you to begin a global conflict that will change the course of humankind. Josh Hartnett is pissed!) Stonewall has the opportunity to tell the story of a profound, pivotal moment in the history of gay rights in this country, and it not only fumbles it, it trips over it, then falls off a cliff, then sets itself on fire. It is a movie so baffling and wrong-headed and absurd that I honestly can’t believe it exists. I can’t fathom what anyone involved could have possibly been thinking.
2. What we’ve got here is an actual historical event supplanted by two-plus hours of prattling on amid the most clichéd, boring-ass people you’re ever going to meet. The central character in Stonewall is Danny, an Indiana farm kid in the ’60s whose controlling father kicks out of the house for being gay—Dad’s a football coach, of course, and just in case you get confused, he’s always wearing a hat that says “COACH”—and thus moves to New York City, where he hopes to attend Columbia and become an astronomer. He ends up on Christopher Street, where he meets a band of fellow “outcasts,” and they all cram into a room together and try to help each other out. This isn’t necessarily the worst setup, I suppose; it’s certainly not unusual for movies to ground historical events in the day-to-day lives of fictional people, and that can work if you care about the people—if they represent something important. But here, you get the blandest, most clichéd lead possible—you seriously watch Danny get off the bus and gape up at all those tall buildings while clutching his suitcase—acting less like an authentic representation of late-’60s gay culture, and more like a Newsies extra.
3. Thus, when we need to be getting a sense of just what pressures the gay community was under back then—the pressures that began the slow boil that led to the explosion at the Stonewall Inn in summer 1969—we’re stuck watching dumb-dumb Danny try to navigate the big, bad city instead. Danny’s dull-ass story takes up a shocking amount of the running time here. Will he find love? Will he get to go to Columbia? Will he feel more comfortable with himself? Hey, how’s his sister doing? Let’s go check in on her for a while. All right, now back to New York. Maybe he’ll end up with this guy? His plight is weirdly irrelevant to the larger story of gay rights that the movie is ostensibly trying to tell. Why Stonewall would foreground such an empty and pointless character to illustrate such a tumultuous time in American history is confounding, to stay the least. Danny occasionally wanders into the actual Stonewall Inn, and you want the camera to stop following him for a while. Let him go do his thing. I want to see the people in here, the ones who pushed the Stonewall uprising to happen, the ones who guided the movement to its next stage. Why are we still following this dope around?
4. This tonal confusion extends to the story of the uprising itself. The movie foregrounds two real-life characters: an NYPD cop who conducts repeated raids on Stonewall, and a thug played by Ron Perlman who kidnaps attractive young men and pimps them out for rich dudes uptown. (I think that’s what he’s doing. The movie isn’t clear about his character at all.) This is the actual Stonewall content here: Anger over the NYPD’s repeated raids on the place to suss out its mob ties finally boiled over one summer night. That’s all fine and good, but then the movie just drops this whole storyline for at least an hour, and by the time it comes back up again, all of a sudden the uprising is happening. The buildup ends up not making any sense. The explosion that occurs that night doesn’t seem rooted in oppression, or a fight for equal rights, or anything like that at all. It seems rooted in Danny being upset that his boyfriend (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) was cheating on him, so he throws a brick through a window. This is actually what starts the Stonewall riots in this movie. It turns this massive moment in civil rights history into the result of a dull domestic dispute involving a fictional character you don’t even care about. If that’s where you’re going with all this, why call this film Stonewall in the first place?
5. Your director, Roland Emmerich, is the man who gave us Independence Day and 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow; this is the passion project that he’s been pouring his own money into for years. Thus, it’s all the more bewildering that he would take such a pedestrian view of his own material. Did he really just want to tell the story of a drab hunk like Danny? That’s it? If he was trying to mainstream the story of the Stonewall riots, he lost the thread entirely: You can barely find that story here. That someone would work his whole life to make a movie about Stonewall and then forget to include Stonewall is one of the stranger cinematic experiences I’ve had in a while. Everything about this movie is idiotic; it plays into the very stereotypes and thin caricatures it claims to be fighting against. This is a movie you want to throw across the room. Fortunately, the gay rights movement this film ineptly attempts to co-opt is so powerful and so effective— and has come so far—that even a film this all-encompassingly stupid can’t set it back even an inch. Good thing.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.