Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Full credits from IMDb
Proposition 8 aside, the 70s were not like these post-Will & Grace days. Milk, a middlebrow, awards-season biopic about one of the country’s first openly gay elected politicians, opens with archival news footage of gays being arrested en masse for patronizing gay bars. Through these clips, Van Sant suggests that anti-homosexual prejudices in America have waned somewhat in the last several decades. But by raising the specter of bias he urges the audience to recognize the prejudice that homosexuals still face today, as perhaps the last sizeable demographic to be denied, on paper, their full civil rights. Milk throbs with gay pain: midnight phone calls from suicidal strangers, fear of every stopping car on the nighttime streets and of violent parents, gruesome threats of death and castration, forced discretion for fear of employment termination. When spontaneous political protest breaks out mid-film, stoked by Anita Bryant’s much-publicized homohating rhetoric, the eponymous Harvey Milk (a flamboyant Sean Penn) addresses a crowd with shrieking fury. “I know you’re angry…I’m angry!” That anger is palpable, stirring and fist-clenchingly infectious.
Elected San Francisco supervisor, akin to a city councilman, Milk served nearly a year before a fellow supervisor, Dan White (a moody Josh Brolin), assassinated him in 1978. The film opens eight years earlier, taking us through Milk’s move to Castro Street, his rise to political figurehead, and his ultimate death. But more than merely profile a person, Milk chronicles an era, a population and a mood; as much as it concerns the many lost elections of Harvey Milk, the film is about fear and despair transformed through the efforts of a political leader into something like optimism. There’s a conspicuous Obama parallel here, particularly as Milk, after several failed campaigns, successfully runs on a platform of “hope”; the film’s penultimate lines are “without hope, life is not worth living.” (Sorry McCain!) The film’s timeliness extends into the recent battle in California over Proposition 8; here, the villainous referendum, which would have fired all gay teachers and their supporters, is Proposition 6. But, more than tease the audience with easy parallels to contemporary headlines, the film aims to educate it about the deplorable discrimination homosexuals faced and continue to face—the arguments about preserving the American family in the film, set 30 years ago, are frighteningly familiar—and to promote Mr. Milk’s idea that gays should come out of the closet because if straights and squares know a gay personally, they’re less likely to support legislation that oppresses them.
As advocacy and history lesson, Milk is surprisingly affecting, brought to life by the actors and period setting’s emotional details; to many, including myself, the abuse of homosexuals throughout the 20th Century is as foreign as the realities of the Jim Crow South. As a film, however, it’s a dully familiar exercise in lifestory. Director Van Sant seems to have reverted to his Good Will Hunting self after nearly an entire decade, and four brilliant films, as an indie darling—the “IFC Bela Tarr”—crafting challenging cinema from the margins of the moviemaking community. Milk, in contrast, is a conventional, Oscar-baiting Prestige Picture, particularly on the page; its story flows too neatly—Milk switches from Republican businessman to radical activist nearly overnight—and follows the tired formulas of the cut-down-hero-on-the-rise storytelling arc, including, shamelessly, a climactic goodbye phone call between torn-asunder lovers. While Van Sant uncharacteristically ties up most of his loose ends here, he neglects the only one he needed to. His last several films have highlighted action over motive, and it’s one of the few motifs to continue into Milk. But because this film’s trappings are so mainstream, the lack of a credible motive for Milk’s assassin comes off not as provocative but as screenwriter oversight. The “he’s a closet case” rationale the filmmakers offer up several times seems nearly as absurd as the killer’s real-life “Twinkie Defense,” in which White claimed that a night of junk food binging had created a chemical imbalance in his brain.
Van Sant is too smart a filmmaker, though, to let his film collapse entirely under the weight of the mass-digestibility that accompanies award-worthiness. From the onset—the introduction of a framing device: Milk dictating his life story—the film seems destined for hagiography; everything I did was done with an eye on the gay movement, Milk says. But the director maintains a mature skepticism, which, in tandem with Harris Savides’ richly lighted compositions, helps elevate the film towards something like Art. The next scene features Milk as an unctuous, on the cusp of 40 insurance salesman in NYC, 1970, picking up a poofy-haired boy (James Franco) in the subterranean corridors of the subway system. There’s nothing quite heroic about a man looking to get laid on his birthday by a pretty young hustler. With such scenes, the filmmakers gently undermine their case for Milk’s apotheosis, accentuating his imperfect humanity—for someone pushing his staff to come out of the closet to their families, Milk himself never revealed his homosexuality to his parents before they died—though this is still a largely celebratory film that, reflecting its hero’s unhip affection for opera, deals in outsized emotions and exaggerated affection. But in a short and haunting scene, in which Van Sant follows White down a hallway between murders, recalling the graceful high-school driftings of Elephant and Paranoid Park, Milk nears poetry in a way to which none of its fellow Oscar contenders come close. This is about as good as this kind of movie gets; it is, after all, a message movie aiming for wide distribution and mass consumption. It might not be lauded in the film history textbooks, but gay-bashing America needs it right now. Grade: B+
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