"Tying the Knot" is a gay marriage documentary that asks an important question very well: What becomes of the surviving half of a same-sex couple after a partner dies? The movie, directed by Jim de Seve, personalizes a ferocious political debate, never losing its (frequently sad) human face. De Seve takes us through both the emotional toll and thorny financial nightmare men and women face as gay widows and widowers without the legal protections of marriage.
We meet Mickie Mashburn, a Tampa police officer, whose fellow cop spouse, Lois Marrero, died in the line of duty, and we watch as the soft-spoken and even-tempered Mickie fights to receive Lois's pension as part of a benefits package for surviving spouses. Her plight, as de Seve and his crew capture it, is rarely heated. The hearings are always held in small, crowded rooms, where opposing sides appear to be sitting elbow to elbow and no one's voice is ever raised in anger.
In Oklahoma, we're introduced to a rancher named Sam. When Earl, his spouse of 25 years, died, he left the farm to Sam. But a few of Earl's cousins, who were of the mind that the land belongs to them, sued for it and won, which now means Sam, who has nary a cent to his name, has to find someplace else to go. His children, from a previous, heterosexual marriage, try to sell a few of Sam's horses, but the asking price is insultingly low. Crestfallen, Sam sits in a chair in his kitchen and muses on the question marks about his future.
Between the profiles, de Seve cleverly reconstructs the current battle over gay marriage using shots of rallies and protests, C-Span footage, and interviews, with people such as the gay conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan and E.J. Graff, the author of "What Is Marriage For?" Graff is the film's easygoing intellectual, explaining with wit and alacrity the history of marriage from medieval times to now. There are clips of more than one crusader saying they support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage not simply on the grounds that it's a right exclusively for heterosexuals but because that's just the way it's been for millennia. But Graff points out that the concept of marrying for love, not the business of survival, is a relatively modern act and that marriage is an ever-evolving institution.
To underscore this, de Seve invokes the case of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, a white man and black woman whose marriage led to the 1967 Supreme Court decision ending legal restrictions on marriages based on race. But you still get a similar sense of the personal paranoia over gay marriage, with folks like besmirched former Georgia congressman Bob Barr and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson begging us to consider the damage that could be done if same-sex couples were to wed. It could lead to the destruction of the family, of the nation, and please, America: What about the children? It's funny, in these sermons, how quickly the thought of two men exchanging vows can turn a staunch Republican into a raging federalist.
As feeling and well made as "Tying the Knot" is, though, you only wish de Seve would have seen his movie as more than a mere political tool. It makes a sane, civil, humanist case for marriage for all, and you never fully forget the woebegone faces of people like Mickie and Sam. But everything is wrapped up too quickly in the final minutes, as though de Seve were more concerned with how current his movie should be than how rousing. This is an up-to-the-minute work of activism that stops short of stirring the sense of outrage that a great work of social journalism can achieve.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tying the knot