Nether Regions 12.08.11: Execution of Justice
Posted by Chad Webb on 12.08.2011
You've seen the 1984 documentary on Harvey Milk, and the 2008 film starring Sean Penn. Well, this is the other movie, made-for-TV, which aired on Showtime in 1999....
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin in the movie-zone that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
EXECUTION OF JUSTICE
Starring: Tim Daly, Peter Coyote, and Stephen Young Written/Directed By: Leon Ichaso Running Time: 103 minutes Original Release Date: November 28, 1999 Missing Since: December 4, 2001 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
By this point you may be familiar with, or have seen, Gus Van Sant's fine biopic on Harvey Milk entitled Milk from 2008. Sean Penn walked away with his second Oscar for his portrayal. Prior to that in 1984 was the Oscar winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which gets a higher recommendation if you're in a Harvey Milk mood. One title you might not have heard of is Execution of Justice, a made-for-TV movie on Showtime that aired in 1999. That actually won accolades as well, two GLAAD awards to be exact, though I'm not sure why. It is based on a 1986 play of the same name.
Dan White looking happy in the middle of a gay parade.
What makes this account different is that the focus is turned on Dan White instead of Harvey Milk. The movie follows an unnecessarily awkward non-linear story structure and begins with White entering the City Hall building in San Francisco on November 27, 1978 to shoot and kill Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. It then shifts to the opening statements of the prosecution and defense lawyers in court, along with White's recorded confession to the police. From there it maps out White's path to becoming a city supervisor after trying to be both a police office and fireman. Eventually he is elected to that office in District 8 and meets openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk. The two initially get along and agree to support each other for votes on various bills, but when Harvey votes against White on a particular issue, trouble brews. Faced with the struggles of supporting his family, being a voice of opposition regarding "deviants," and foolishly resigning his post, White loses control and commits heinous acts. His trial, and the verdict, becomes a media circus.
The original play was actually quite inventive in that the trial was being charged in the court of theatre for a miscarriage of justice. This paralleled the real trial where White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. It also incorporated live stage action, videos, taped voices and music. That sounds interesting, and in fact would go on to be nominated for four Drama Desk Awards. The movie Execution of Justice is middling, overacted, and sporadically ridiculous. Director Leon Ichaso and writer Michael Butler attempt to embrace the timeline hopscotch of the play, but it comes across as disorganized and misguided. Take the roller skating drag queen nun Boom-Boom (also an AIDS activist) for instance. This character appears periodically to speak to the audience, but also to contribute to the dramatized sequences. If anything should have been taken out, this was it. The point of her being involved is confusing as she waxes poetic about marginalized groups. Because this is primarily about Dan White and not Harvey Milk, this voice of public consciousness seems out of place.
It goes without saying that what Dan White did was reprehensible, but this movie paints him as a spineless bigot in the most exaggerated fashion. The dialogue lacks an emotional pull, so Tim Daly's performance remains transparent throughout. Daly gives it the old college try, and resembles Dan White closely, but the goal of the play was to make him out to be purely a myopic monster. Perhaps he was out of his element as a politician, but to believe this you'd think he was a moron. Daly, known for his role on Wings, also starred in In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco as a similar persona. He's more competent than he's ever been given credit for, but here his exertions are clouded by the shoddy script.
The cover of Emily Mann's play.
Peter Coyote affords a tolerable workmanlike depiction of Harvey Milk, nowhere near as flamboyant as Penn. As a television movie, the cast is uniformly straightforward and mediocre. Stephen Young has as much screen time as Coyote playing Mayor Moscone. Considering Emily Mann crafted this for the stage, the absence of flair, energy, or any form of theatricality from Young and Coyote is disappointing. Amy Van Nostrand's job as Dan's wife Mary Ann is basically to exhibit a permanent expression of discontent at her husband's regular tantrums. Towards the end she finally has a task other than standing around when she slips into soap opera territory yelling at Dan.
Among the sillier scenes in Execution of Justice are Dan and his friends in the fire department and police force voicing their displeasure at Harvey Milk running for office. Of course this conversation takes place at a dimly lit bar while playing pool. One schmuck asks "Who do we have?", which results in an expression of epiphany on Dan's face. It's as if they are arguing that Dan's sole motive for running was homophobia, to rid San Francisco of all things homosexual, including their parades as we later discover during an embarrassing tirade. Another outrageous moment takes place at a friendly baseball game where Mayor Moscone gets a first base hit that Dan throws a fit about, because "HE WAS OUT!" damnit. Eventually Dan is informed that he cannot hold two jobs as a fireman and a city sup, so he lays down with some shady real estate developers for extra cash, but this means breaking his promise on a vote. The developers in this movie act like mobsters in The Sopranos.
The whole "Twinkie defense" approach is merely grazed over, which is sad because the courtroom antics have not been retold in great length or detail yet. Aside from showing Dan eating one Twinkie and subsequently putting a medical expert on the stand to describe his "gorging on junk food," this facet of the case is barely addressed. As a matter of fact, the court scenes unfold as incredibly flat and by-the-numbers. Ichaso tacks on needless flair to moments that seem very artificial. Somehow, they try to connect Dan's skewed mentality with watching news of the Jonestown massacre. Don't ask me why. Later, as Dan grows increasingly aggravated with resigning and waiting for Moscone's decision to reappoint him, he notices the metal detector at City Hall, which cues a slow-motion effect as he strolls beside it. Knowing that Dan was aware of the metal detector so he could enter through the window is crucial apparently. Execution was filmed in Toronto, but enough San Francisco sights are on hand to give the illusion otherwise.
Dan White and Harvey Milk face off as city supervisors.
Various interviews and occasional news footage with people that were alive and around during these events are integrated with the drama. Their names are not displayed, but they are former Moscone aide Corey Busch, political consultant David Looman, and Tony Ammiano from The Times of Harvey Milk. We just assume that these three really know their stuff, but I also detect viewers were supposed to possess a pre-disposed knowledge of the tragedy. The marriage of documentary interviews and Lifetime channel storytelling is odd because only three subjects appear and they don't add much to what is acted out. Having said that, no one associated with this wanted to rely on the audience reading between the lines, so every point had to be spelled out in a manner in which even kindergarten students would be exasperated. Ultimately, Michael Butler's loose adaptation is a haphazard mixture of standard biopic and docudrama.
I was hoping the court case would feature more prominently in Execution of Justice, but instead Ichaso and his writers put us to sleep drawing out the events leading up to the shooting and trying to reveal what led Dan to his crimes. It's difficult to take this interpretation of the events seriously compared to the aforementioned documentary, or even on its own. I suppose they were effective in laying out the pressures Dan White was under, along with his petulant self-pity and paranoia, but they communicate this in a paper thin manner, without subtlety, and fail to capture the sheer outrage in the community. The concentration is on the political backstabbing rather than the basic difference of a gay activist clashing with an all-American Irish Catholic. Accusing Execution of Justice of taking liberties with the source is an understatement, but the final product is the same type of generic made-for-TV filler people have watched and forgotten for years and years. They are a dime a dozen.