MilkReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/26/08 23:03:15
Hollywood has been trying to make a film of the life of Harvey Milk, the gay activist who made headlines when he became the first openly gay person elected to public office in America and when he was assassinated eleven months later, along with the mayor of San Francisco, by a deranged co-worker (who would later offer an insanity defense based on the concept that he was too zonked out on junk food to know what he was doing), for nearly three decades now--filmmakers ranging from Bryan Singer to Oliver Stone have been linked to various projects over the years and for a long time, it was rumored that Robin Williams would take on the role of Milk. Although he has been the subject of numerous books and an award-winning documentary (1984’s “The Times of Harvey Milk”), it is only now that Gus Van Sant, another director whose name has come up in context with a Milk-related project over the years, has finally been able to give us the new biopic “Milk.” When a project of this type takes that long to reach the big screen, there is an undeniable risk that it may just come off as a dated period piece. Sadly, as recent events surrounding the passing of California’s loathsome Proposition 8 have demonstrated, Milk’s story is just as relevant as ever. Luckily, the film itself is just as vital and alive as well--as strange as it may sound, a film that tells a story that ended 30 years ago is perhaps the one film of this holiday season that truly speaks to what is going on in America at this moment--and even more luckily, the end result is one of the best biopics in recent memory.Utilizing a framework that involves Milk (Sean Penn) narrating the details of his life into a tape recorder, “Milk” starts off in 1970 with him as a straitlaced New York businessman who is growing increasingly dissatisfied with having to hide who he really is. Inspired by his new and younger boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco), the two of them move out to San Francisco in 1972 to live in the Castro Street area that was the heart of the city’s gay community. At first, Milk is content to merely run his newly opened camera shop and soak up a bit of the freedom that he had been denying himself--he even becomes a bit of a local power broker when he helps arrange support in the community for local Teamsters in a boycott against a beer manufacturer. However, when it becomes increasingly obvious to him that even living in a seemingly safe haven like San Francisco doesn’t prevent gays from being brutalized and oppressed by the police, something snaps in him and he decides to become a political activist and announces his candidacy for the role of district supervisor. The first campaign doesn’t go particularly well--there are plenty of death threats and not even “The Advocate” will endorse his candidacy, but he scores enough votes to inspire a couple of more runs for public office that increase his power base even if they don’t quite manage to get him into office. Finally, in 1977, after local redistricting puts him at an advantage and Anita Bryant’s high-profile anti-gay campaign inspire a backlash that he is able to take advantage of (especially when he defuses a potentially destructive riot by single-handedly channeling the crowd’s anger and energy into a peaceful protest march), Milk is finally elected district supervisor, where he begins pushing for a gay rights ordinance. Milk quickly becomes an expert at political gamesmanship--he introduces a law about cleaning up doggie-doo that is popular enough with the voters to help get his ordinance passed--and while similar bits of legislation are being overturned throughout the country thanks to Bryant and her forces, he is able to spearhead a successful effort to prevent the same thing from happening in San Francisco. Before long, Milk is a rising star in the political community and, as he describes himself at one point to Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), he is now “a homosexual with power--that’s scary!”
As Milk recounts his story, we are also gradually introduced to several of the people whose lives Milk would affect forever and vice-versa. One of them is Cleve Jones (a virtually unrecognizable Emilie Hirsch), a brash young hustler who initially dismisses Milk as an old creep but who eventually blossoms under his inspiration into a key member of the gay rights movement. There is Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), a budding young politico who comes in from nowhere to successfully manage Milk’s fourth campaign for office. Jack Lira (Diego Luna) is a young Mexican whom Milk impulsively takes as a love after breaking up with Scott--unfortunately, he never quite fits in with Milk’s circle of friends and that, along with his instability and inability to share Milk with his constituents, leads to the kind of tragedy that is both shocking and yet somehow inevitable. However, the most notable person who comes into Milk’s world is fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a man who got elected to office on the most rigidly conservative platform and yet finds himself strangely fascinated by Milk and his world--when his child is having its christening, Milk is the only co-worker invited to the ceremony. Milk is bemused by White and tries to work with him but when he winds up voting against White on a piece of legislation that he initially promised to support, White wildly overreacts and begins growing more and more unstable. Before long, White impulsively resigns from office and when he changes his mind a few days later, Milk is one of those pushing to keep him from getting his job back. When he learns that he isn’t being rehired, it finally pushes him over the edge and leads to that tragic day in which he snuck into City Hall and shot both Milk and Moscone in their offices.
I suppose that it says a lot about the fairly outré nature of Gus Van Sant’s work over the last few years (including such blatantly avant-garde efforts as “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park”) that a film project about the life and death of a murdered gay activist could be considered the most commercially viable thing that he has done in a long time. While fans of those more off-beat efforts may be slightly perturbed to see that he has chosen to embrace instead of subvert the conventions of the standard Hollywood biopic, they will hopefully be mollified by the fact that Van Sant has presented them with an unusually effective example of one, using Dustin Lance Black’s highly detailed and meticulously researched screenplay as a basis. Rather than give us a simplified take at his work that has been reduced to the barest essentials, the film presents viewers with an eye-opening look at a specific place and time and does so both on a visual level, thanks to the meticulous recreation of Castro Street in the 1970s and Harris Savides’ evocative cinematography, and on a narrative one as well by digging in to the political situation of the time and allowing us to see in detail just how Milk managed to effectively work his way through the political machine. More intriguingly, the screenplay manages to avoid the potential pitfall of making Milk into some kind of secular saint while pushing all of the other characters into the background. Here, Milk comes across as a real person with real flaws and vulnerabilities while also offering similarly nuanced portraits of the other key people--even Dan White is afforded a characterization here that is likely to have viewers feeling some degree of sympathy for him despite the monstrousness of his actions. More impressively, Van Sant avoids milking the material for melodrama and cheap sentiment for the most part--the movie doesn’t grind to a halt for the kind of dramatic moments that feel as though they were designed for Oscar clip reels--and as a result, when he does finally go for a tear-jerking moment at last (the candlelight vigil following Milk’s murder that utilizes footage from the actual event, the sentiment of the sequence actually feels earned. The screenplay isn’t perfect--the material involving Milk’s relationship with Jack Lira is a subplot that feels more like a distraction than anything else--but for the most part, this is one of the more unusually effective biopics to come along in a while.
The other element that elevates “Milk” from other films of its type is the mesmerizing performance from Sean Penn in the title role. Effectively tempering the angry edge that has infused most of his best work over the years, Penn presents us with a version of Milk that replicates the man in ways far beyond approximating his look and vocal cadences. He captures the wit, charm, brashness and vulnerability of the man to such an astonishing degree that at a certain point, we are no longer looking at Sean Penn delivering a performance--for all intents and purposes, we are looking at Harvey Milk. Over the years, Penn has given us one indelible performance after another but his work here is some of the best stuff that he has ever done. At the same time, this isn’t a one-man show by any means because the supporting cast is just as effective--Brolin’s take on Dan White is just as hypnotic and strangely sensitive as his recent turn as George W. Bush, James Franco contributes a sweetly vulnerable performance as Scott Smith and Emilie Hirsch does such a good job of disappearing into the role of Cleve Jones that I have to admit that I didn’t even realize that it was him playing the role until I saw the end credits.Funny, touching, angry and filled to the brim with great performances, “Milk” is a wonderful film from start to finish and, as I said before, one that has become even more relevant thanks to recent events in California. In the last few weeks, some people have speculated as to whether that vote might have turned out differently if the film had been released before the election in order to galvanize voters. My guess is that it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference--those voting from Prop 8 probably wouldn’t have bothered to see it in the first place unless they were going just to see Sean Penn getting shot. However, there is a chance that it might push some viewers out of their complacent attitudes and inspire them to become activists as well. This is the kind of thing that the real Harvey Milk did countless times during the last decade of his life and it is a legacy that “Milk” will hopefully carry on to future generations as well.
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