' Cinema Romantico: Milk

Monday, December 08, 2008

Milk

I think "Milk" is a fairly important movie for this time and place. (Highly critical note: Its importance does not automatically make it the Best film of the year.) You watch the film portray Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), who in 1977 became America's first openly gay man in public office, and you watch him battle to fight off California's Proposition 9 and you think, "Boy, we've come a long way." Oh. Wait. You don't think that. My bad. You think, "Hey, didn't California just pass Proposition 8 last month?" Ah, progress.

You think about how this very week the supreme court in Iowa is set to hear a case for same-sex marriage and how proud it would make you to know your home state became the first one in the midwest to redefine the rules of marriage.

You think about how a fresh, invigorating, hopeful young guy is set to assume duties at the White House next month except than you see in "Milk" where Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) compares fresh, invigorating, hopeful Harvey Milk to Mayor Daley and you pray our new President doesn't fall victim to the rigaramole that is the political game.

Of course, while you think all that the fact remains that you are still watching a movie. A biopic movie. You wonder if director Gus Van Sant can put his own unique spin on "Milk" so that rather than merely being important it also becomes, you know, good.

If you didn't know Harvey Milk was assassinated don't worry that I just gave it away because the film gives it away right at the start, framing the film with a voiceover of Milk's as he makes a long confession into a tape recorder that is only to be played in the event of his assassination.

He meets young Scott Smith (James Franco) on the night of his 40th birthday and as the clock strikes midnight he says aloud, "Forty years and I haven't done a thing." He soon will. He and Scott move to San Francisco, initially open a store, but quickly become involved in the gay rights movement. He literally stands on a soapbox making speeches that will draw more and more people as time goes on while losing none of their power and year after year he will crusade to become an elected official in the city of San Francisco.

One thing the film does very intelligently is show that while billing himself as Harvey Milk vs. The Machine the only real way to affect any change is to become part of that very machine. Milk becomes more conscious of this fact with each passing year. It was one of the things I liked most about the film. It truly does make you aware of the muck of the political process that accompanies the necessary spouting off about Change and Hope. (There is one scene I really liked where the camera circles the characters discussing a possible gay rights ordinance....while they all chow down on Chinese food. It felt drenched in reality. A huge political moment transpiring with the scent of Kung Pow chicken in the air.)

Less successful are the inevitable Scenes At Home where we see Milk's personal life being strained. First he drives away Scott and than he drives away the very unstable Jack (Diego Luna) who sort of haphazardly seems to enter his life. I understand all this was part of who Milk who was and maybe there just isn't an interesting way to get this stuff across onscreen. I don't know. If I was making a biopic I would hold month-long brainstorming sessions 24 hours a day to try and find a unique way to present the Scenes At Home.

A film of this sort lives and dies by its performances and "Milk" has got one great one and one that I would term almost extraordinary. What is a single word that leaps to mind in relation to Sean Penn? How about this - transformative? He seems capable of becoming anyone and does so yet again. He manages to convey the incredible toll politics can take on a person while still managing to remain upbeat in the face of it all. Not easy. Most importantly, though, he never makes Milk feel like a martyr. Perhaps he ended up being one - he has certainly made a great difference even in death - but while still alive we are simply seeing a person doing what he feels needs to be done.

But the most spectacular turn of the film belongs to Josh Brolin as Milk's initial ally in city government and the eventual assassin, Dan White. He is not granted a plethora of screen time and so in what he does get Brolin is required to show us a person who is perhaps not all that comfortable around Milk but still is open enough to try and work with him so long as they have each other's backs, politically speaking. There is rage hidden in White and Brolin shows us that without showing us that - get what I'm saying? There is one mesmerizingly unsettling scene where a drunken White confronts Milk. He's the bad guy but he too never asks for sympathy and makes the fateful day when White shows up at the courthouse with a gun chillingly matter of fact.

There is a certain guy who played a certain villain in a certain superhero movie who was certainly good who certainly may end up with the supporting actor Oscar but I would like to go ahead and declare today that your real winner for that statue should be Mr. Brolin.

Van Sant's direction too assists somewhat in raising the film to the level of more than just a standard biopic. He blends real-life footage with that of the movie and also employs music skillfully. A particular shot at the rally where the camera chooses to ignore the crowd and hovers on Milk for the duration was very effective.

In the end, it's not just an important movie. It's a good one, too. Not great, but good. That said, I still think it's important to see - particulary today if you happen to be part of the Iowa Supreme Court.

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