Steven Hale approves in this week's Scene:
If you're the type who thinks a beard and a long highway headed west can cleanse you of society's ills, you probably already consider Allen Ginsberg's Howl more profound than profane. Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman may be preaching to a converted audience of angel-headed hipsters, but their docudrama Howl is still a stirring defense of every American's sacred right to a barbaric yawp. Revolving around the 1957 obscenity trial following the poem's publication, the movie doesn't serve as a referendum on Ginsberg's seminal work; it celebrates the San Francisco court's favorable ruling regarding its literary merits as much as the poem itself.
Primarily known as documentarians (The Times of Harvey Milk), filmmakers Epstein and Friedman stick to the facts in service of their personal admiration for the work. Courtroom dialogue was taken directly from the original transcripts, and content for interview-style scenes was compiled from archival footage. James Franco delivers a brilliant portrayal of the young Ginsberg, chain-smoking his way through the beginnings of a counterculture while offering insight into his work and working methods. His reading of the poem, the film's backbone, sounds convincing and spontaneous, as if the words had occurred to the actor in the moment. In the courtroom, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn and Jeff Daniels (jeez, after Dumb and Dumber he got all ... serious) all turn in worthy performances, albeit in roles which don't require much of them.