Thursday, January 08, 2009

In Theaters: Milk

Milk poster from
Reviewing the movie MILK without looking at its relevance to the modern gay rights movement is nearly impossible, which makes reviewing it tricky. I don’t want to give the film credit just for being pro-gay-rights, since making a film with a good message does not necessarily mean you’ve actually made a good movie. But at the same time you can’t divorce this from a modern context; over in California there’s just been a very ugly law passed repealing gay marriage rights in that state, and Rick Warren, a pastor who helped get the law passed, is giving a prayer at President-elect Obama’s inauguration, which is insult-to-injury defined. In such times, the inspiring yet tragic story of Harvey Milk, one of the most important figures in the American gay rights movement, seems like a cry for action, an exhortation, something to remind all of us that the fight can be won and needs to be won. This in turn makes the movie seem more effective. So I have to make sure I’m not overselling the film just because it’s coming along at an opportune time.

Fortunately, MILK happens to be a very good movie, probably a great one. Gus Van Sant delivers a lively picture, one brimming with energy and intensity. It’s just plain entertaining in a way you don’t expect a political biopic to be; without cheapening or sensationalizing its subject, MILK steers away from the forced solemnity or overdelicate handling that sometimes ruins sensitive material. Van Sant and writer Dustin Vance Black have done their homework, and that they found the right actor for the part doesn’t hurt either.

The film is framed, briefly, by scenes of a 48-year-old Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) dictating memories and thoughts into a tape recorder, the tapes to be played in the event that he is assassinated. The real action, however, begins at the start of the decade, when Harvey meets young hippie Scott Smith, they fall in love, and move to San Francisco’s Castro district, home of a growing gay community. Harvey starts out opening a camera shop, but is caught up in the influx of young gay men from all over the country moving to one place they’ve heard is safe for people like them. The store becomes a meeting place for gay activists, and Harvey helps them get organized, even working to gain favor with other factions in San Francisco (helping the Teamsters boycott Coors by getting it removed from local gay bars, in one notable example.) Soon after the murder of a gay man walking with his partner, Harvey decides to start running for San Francisco’s board of supervisors. He loses, and loses, and loses a primary for the California State Assembly, but keeps doing a little better each time. Finally, in a race that proves the last straw for his and Scott’s relationship, he wins a seat.

And it’s just at the right time. As Anita Bryant and other anti-gay activists start leading drives to repeal anti-discrimination ordinances in various cities and counties across America, Harvey is trying to get one passed in San Francisco. To make things more complicated, State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) teams up with Bryant to introduce Proposition 6, a state law that would call for the firing of gay teachers and their supporters. It enjoys a lot of support at first, but Milk feels like a fight, and uses his unique mix of political acumen and brash soapboxing to rally as many people as possible against the discriminatory law. In so doing, he manages to alienate fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a conservative family man who never really got along with him in the first place but is starting to take his political setbacks personally.

We all know how this ended. Proposition 6 was defeated, and Milk’s gay-rights ordnance passed. But Dan White, growing increasingly unstable, resigned his post only to ask for it back. When Mayor George Moscone (here played by Victor Garber) rejected his re-application, White broke into City Hall, and killed both Moscone and Milk (whom he no doubt blamed for not getting his job back.) It is, sadly, a bit too common for films about gay men to end in death, and here it was unavoidable, and the filmmakers try to avoid overemphasizing Milk’s murder while not dragging it offscreen. White’s trial, the “Twinkie Defense”, the post-verdict riots, and his eventual suicide are all dealt with in the traditional end-of-film captions, but we are shown (mostly through real footage) the candlelight vigil that took place the night of the tragedy. It’s arguably the best way they could have treated the material, and the splendid documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK covers that in more detail if you’re interested.

Sean Penn has to walk a line here, doing justice to Harvey’s awkward and sometimes effeminate mannerisms without going into full-blown caricature. Milk in the film, as he was in life, is gangly, a bit ungraceful, but constantly animated and powerful; humble but commanding. If you’ve ever seen any news or interview footage of Milk himself (and again, the aforementioned doc is a great place to start), you probably couldn’t help but notice that he was both a nebbish and a firebrand, and the unique charisma that made him a successful politician is well in evidence in Penn’s portrayal. You cannot help but like the man, and even Dan White is shown as being somewhat receptive to his overtures of friendship; their rivalry tends to stem from White’s own naiveté about how the political game works. Josh Brolin also avoids caricaturing the troubled conservative too much.

James Franco is the real counterpoint to Penn, though; one is cold when the other’s hot, and often vice versa. The relationship between Harvey and Scott is charmingly presented, and missed when it goes away, but it seems strong even then- though they weren’t together at the end you get the sense that they never stopped being in love. Some great casting was done for the other members of Milk’s Castro Camera entourage (including an invisible Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, who actually also appears in the movie and worked as a historical consultant), and it’s often a joy just to watch them all at work. The excitement and fear of being at the dead center of a major civil rights movement comes across so strongly as to be invigorating. There are a few missteps (I’m not sure how the opera imagery fits anything), but they’re minor.

There’s a disheartening irony in seeing MILK after a major setback for gay rights, but it’s also a nice prod against complacency. Great things don’t get done without great effort, and this movie gives a sense of just how much effort was involved in giving gay people the most rudimentary rights and protections. On top of it all, it’s just a really great movie, paying tribute to a remarkable man.

Written by Dustin Vance Black
Directed by Gus Van Sant

Grade: A

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