MilkReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/22/08 06:50:41
(Worth A Look)
“We have broken the major dam of prejudice in this country.” These are the words of legendary gay rights crusader Harvey Milk, as heard in Gus Van Sant’s new biopic “Milk.” The year is 1978, the scene is Milk dictating his will, thinking back to his triumphs over such homophobic ideas as California’s Proposition 6, which would have barred gays from becoming teachers. Prop 6 died at the ballot box, but thirty years later, gay rights are again on the mind of a nation.Familiar struggles echo throughout the film. One montage of vintage news reports reveal a long history of lawmakers upholding human rights for homosexuals, only to see those rights stripped away in knee-jerk reactions from a panicked public. The insulting reneging of marriage rights by Californians is nothing new. The dam wasn’t broken.
But it was cracked, and to Harvey Milk, a crack is a solid first sign of the sluggish crawl to equality. Milk was a man bursting with optimism. “Give them hope” was a phrase repeated throughout his political speeches, and throughout this film. “Hope” is another echo of 2008, but here, the word belongs solely to Harvey, whose outsized smile and fiery eagerness for a better world makes his enthusiasm contagious.
“Milk” is a celebration of his accomplishments, and a somber examination of the hatred he battled, the hatred that ended his life. The screenplay, by Dustin Lance Black, reminds the viewer up front that in November 1978, Milk and then-San Francisco mayor George Moscone were killed by city supervisor Dan White, a disgruntled city employee angry about losing his job. Milk received numerous death threats throughout his political career, which he accepted as a sad, inescapable part of his crusade (in a moment of cheesy obviousness, the screenplay unnecessarily repeats a line spoken by a younger Harvey, in which he predicts he won’t live to see his fiftieth birthday); what he could not expect was to be taken down in his prime by a bitter schmuck desperate to get rehired.
White is played here by Josh Brolin. It’s a brilliant, complicated performance from an actor enjoying a deserved resurgence - his White is a smart mix of white bread “family values” stiffness and career clumsiness, a man too awkward to properly handle the political waters of city hall. A scene where he invites Harvey to his son’s christening reveals a social ineptness, and his later tirades over the failures of his political agenda are played like a child brooding over not getting his way. There are hints that perhaps White is closeted, perhaps shaken by Milk’s brazen openness.
But how much screen time should Dan White receive? Give him too much, and the film becomes all about the assassination; give him too little, and Milk’s death doesn’t get the proper amount of discussion. Black’s screenplay performs a delicate balancing act, granting White the same importance as the other key figures in Harvey’s life without letting the killer overshadow his victim.
And so we return to Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn. The danger in a role such as this is to turn Harvey into a caricature of swishiness and catchphrases. But watch how Penn melts into the role, effectively copying Milk’s mannerisms without making them the crutch of the performance; Penn discovers the person beneath. This is one of the actor’s greatest roles, effortlessly capturing Milk’s warmth, vibrancy, compassion, and ambition.
The movie follows Harvey’s rise to power, beginning in 1970, when he moved to San Francisco with boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco, impressively nuanced in what is, essentially, a thankless sidekick role) in search of a more rewarding life. Unsurprised by the prejudice he encounters, he fights to turn Castro Street into a safe haven. He grows into a leader both locally and nationally, challenging the despicable actions of bigots like Anita Bryant, who demanded gays be denied basic civil rights because, you know, they’re all out to recruit our children. (One cheerfully imagines her shuddering in fear over Milk’s other catchphrase: “I’m Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you!”) In 1977, Harvey finally gets elected to the board of city supervisors, the first (openly) gay person voted into public office in America.
This is not a revelation. Milk’s story is part of our modern history, familiar to anyone with a memory of the 1970s, or of the 1985 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” or of his Wikipedia page. What makes “Milk” so powerful is the way it brings out the humanity of this history. With his script, Black shows Milk’s political journey as a personal one, and the cast brings to life the energy of the movement. Milk often called for every gay person in the nation to come out of the closet - it would be much harder for the public to defend homophobic beliefs if they could see “gay” not as an abstract idea but as something with the face of a friend, neighbor, relative - and in its own way, “Milk” carries out that notion, opening up history to let us look at the people behind the cause.
And yet “Milk” remains a fairly standard biography, showcasing a series of Hollywood conventions in its storytelling. (A subplot involving a wheelchair-bound teen, while genuinely touching, reeks of schmaltz; the film’s second half gets bogged down with extraneous characters and dry plot points that feel more obligatory than they should; a symbolism-heavy recurring theme of Puccini’s “Tosca” gets in the way of more effective drama.) This is why Gus Van Sant’s direction is so important here. Van Sant appears to be leaning more toward his safer, mainstream work (“Good Will Hunting,” “Finding Forrester”) than his more recent eclectic cinematic experiments (“Elephant,” “Paranoid Park”). But there’s an urgency here not often seen in traditional biopics, as if the filmmaker is aware of all those parallels between 1978 and 2008. Each ironic reminder of How Far We Haven’t Come is a punch-to-the-gut wake up call (although the filmmaker wisely avoids overselling the comparisons, letting history speak for itself). Van Sant then peppers his film with archival clips from the era, the news clips and filmed speeches adding an immediacy reenactments can’t capture.This vibrancy helps self-correct the film, covering up its shakier formulaic moments. “Milk” is downright electric at times, like the scene in which Harvey transforms an ugly riot (a response to Bryant’s anti-gay campaign) into a peaceful march. Penn is outstanding here as his Harvey finds the hope inside the anger. This is a film that’s angry, yet boundlessly hopeful, knowing that thirty years later, Milk’s work still isn’t finished, but maybe a movie with Milk’s mission in mind - putting a human face on a movement - might take us a step closer.
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