Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Straight Story: Milk

There are no great scenes in Milk. No moments that suggest the film will go down as a classic. No moments that ensure that it will ride a wave of acclaim to vast success this awards season, though it might. Gus Van Sant’s biopic about the first openly gay man to hold public office in this country has all the earmarks of what we derisively call “Oscar bait.” It’s based on a true story; it stars a big-name actor (Sean Penn) in a gender-bending-type performance; and it ends both triumphantly and tragically – all Academy favorites. But while Milk lacks any truly great moments, it also lacks something else: any poor ones. Milk is formulaic, yes. Predictable, yes. But it’s also a solid example of straightforward, efficient storytelling that’s frequently moving and never boring. This year, for sure, that makes it special.

Milk is written by Dustin Lance Black, and it’s an unusual biopic in at least two respects. First, the film picks up its subject at the age of 40 and never looks back. There are a few references to Harvey Milk’s pre-San Francisco existence, but there are no flashbacks and nothing is mentioned about his formative years in New York; his childhood is a complete mystery. Second, Milk tells us exactly how it will end, with its subject’s assassination in 1978, less than a year removed from being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the equivalent of city council. Such major details would be known beforehand by much of Milk’s adult audience, but Van Sant levels the playing field by showing post-assassination news footage within the first 10 minutes. Since films live forever and are born again to new audiences, it’s a surprising decision. And a brilliant one. Van Sant’s film is called Milk, but it’s about a moment and a movement more than it’s about a man. Harvey Milk’s story is a tale of fighting and losing, fighting and losing, fighting and losing, fighting and finally winning, and then losing his life with his largest victory still intact. If Harvey Milk once served as the megaphone leading the gay rights movement, within this film he becomes the looking glass through which we observe a significant moment in our country’s civil rights history.

Penn’s performance in the lead role is a challenge to describe. He doesn’t quite disappear into the part the way, say, Toby Jones becomes Truman Capote in Infamous, but Penn is at a disadvantage. He’s a familiar face playing a man with nary a distinctive feature, unless you count Harvey’s haircut, which is perfectly duplicated here. But Penn nails Harvey’s accent and mannerisms, and that’s transformation enough. If Penn had glasses, a mustache or sideburns to hide behind, this might be regarded as a virtuoso type performance. Instead it’s just a great one. Penn’s biggest mistake is making it look easy, despite appearing in nearly every second of the 128-minute film. Meanwhile, the screenwriter’s biggest error is never giving the main character a scene in which he’s on the verge of cracking. Over the course of the film, Harvey loses elections, has challenging relationships and receives death threats, but he handles everything with an optimistic ease. Penn’s Harvey has the confidence of Barack Obama and the enthusiasm of a TV weatherman. If he isn’t beaming with glee, he’s smiling like the cat that ate the canary. Harvey may have been late to the political game, but Milk suggests that he took to it like a drag queen to the Castro District.

I choose that last image carefully, because while today San Francisco is thought of as a kind of gay haven, Milk is a reminder that the city that gave us the peace, love and dope of Haight-Ashbury also treated homosexuals with prejudice and hatred. Milk depicts Harvey, the self-crowned “Mayor of Castro Street,” getting in on the ground level of an effort to unite homosexuals in that neighborhood. His movement generated immediate excitement, but change was a long time in coming. Even in San Francisco, homosexuals were arrested, beaten or worse for being gay. Things have changed since then, of course. Things have changed since fundamentalist Christian singer Anita Bryant (depicted here via news clips) openly compared homosexuals to prostitutes and thieves. Things have changed since California senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) called San Francisco a “sexual garbage heap.” But things haven’t changed entirely. Last month’s passage of Proposition 8 in California, taking away the previously granted right of homosexuals to marry, is a bitter reminder of that. And so it is that this story from 30 years ago feels so timely today.

That said, if you appreciate the way movies can function as historical flashcards (I can’t think of the 1930s South without recalling To Kill A Mockingbird, for example), one hopes that – if nothing else – Milk will redefine within the public consciousness the events of November 27, 1978. Harvey Milk’s death by the gun of fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), who also murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone, is arguably less remembered than White’s famous “Twinkie defense,” in which White’s attorneys successfully argued that their client was of diminished mental capacity due the over-consumption of sugary foods and drinks. Today, White’s alibi makes for head-slapping trivia, and the reduction of his crime from murder to manslaughter ranks among the most despicable of our country’s legal calamities, but such details shouldn’t overshadow the victims of the crime and what those men stood for. To its endless credit Milk bucks the trend followed to an excruciating degree by this year’s Changeling and opts not to spend a second in the courtroom. Instead it condenses the legal aftermath to a single textual epilogue. It’s a minor filmmaking decision, but it makes a major impact. Milk is about what it’s about, and nothing more.

For many, I suspect, the narrow scope of Milk will be a disappointment. The biopic formula has become so engrained that Milk seems almost negligent in its failure to tie Harvey’s political aspirations to some kind of childhood trauma. But the solution to this disappointment is simple: Quit thinking of Milk as an Oscar-baiting biopic. Instead, think of Milk as a historical thriller ala All The President’s Men, about a little guy who worked tirelessly to change public perception. Or think of it as something like a sports film, about a man who never quit and eventually persevered. Better yet, don’t bother to classify it. Harvey Milk’s movement was all about taking people for who and what they are and leaving preconceptions behind. It’s only appropriate that we should do the same with this film. Like the career of the man whose life it follows, Milk is a slice of what it might have been, sure. But what remains is powerful.


Ed Howard said...

A very fair and judicious review of an interesting if somewhat flawed film. It was impossible for me not to be at least mildly disappointed by the film considering my admiration for Van Sant's last four films. I was definitely hoping that he'd bring the style of his recent experiments to a mainstream Oscar-bait showpiece like this, but other than isolated moments -- the bloody whistle, the incorporation of vintage footage, etc. -- it's a very formulaic movie. Cue the inevitable quip about "playing it straight."

On the other hand, it's also impossible not to be impressed by Penn's performance, and to recognize that Van Sant's adherence to a conventional form is in many ways a very deliberate choice intended to make this timely, openly propagandistic film appealing to as wide an audience as possible.

Joel Bocko said...

I just put up my Milk review and it seems I had similar thoughts to yours: not a great film, but an extremely enjoyable one.


Joel Bocko said...

Ed, I haven't seen any of Van Sant's recent work - not even Elephant - so I didn't really watch Milk in that light. I think you are definitely right about his decision to make it conventional being (at least in part) a political one, though.

Richard Bellamy said...

I found "Milk" interesting and I think it captured 1970s San Francisco very accurately, and I thought Penn's performance was convincing and engaging, but I was not touch or overwhelmed by this film. It was good filmmaking - not great - enjoyable, but not impressively memorable.

Mark said...

I know I'm coming way late to this discussion -- the thread's gone totally cold by now -- but I'm amazed there isn't more enthusiasm for this movie in either the review or the comments.

I was starting to get a bit annoyed, in fact, until with only four or five sentences to go in your piece, Jason, down by a touchdown, you pulled out this perfect bomb into double coverage: "Better yet, don’t bother to classify it."

Right! Whatever genre you feel like dropping it into, "Milk" is a moving, inspiring, uplifting and important story. Or at least it moved, inspired and uplifted me.

I was a freshman in college when Milk was killed, and just a few months out of a redneck town where gay people were lucky to get away alive. I myself got beat up for being gay in high school ... and I'm not gay! (I didn't hunt, maybe that was it, and I dug soul music; that also earned me a whupping or two.) Also, a couple of years after graduating from college I lived and worked in San Francisco, and the Milk and Moscone slayings were still very fresh there. By then the AIDS crisis had added another layer, and there was plenty of hatred, shame and anger (with a dollop of pride) surrounding SF's still emerging reputation as a gay haven. It felt like a big deal to live there then.

I don't know. Say what you want about Van Sant, but merely choosing to make this movie now is a huge, brave move. You don't think so? Look at the results of Prop 8 -- in California! Imagine the reception in the rest of movie-going America.

Maybe the film's structure was conventional or not as boundary-pushing as some of GVS's other work. But the movie itself grabbed and held my interest, I know that much. And Penn's performance was extraordinary. (Also Josh Brolin's as Dan White.)

Bait or no bait, Penn deserves at least a nomination for this performance, and I won't be surprised or disappointed if "Milk" is among the contenders for best picture too.

I hope so.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark, right on, dude. That's why we need you round these parts. Thanks for the wonderful comment. As far as I'm concerned, these conversations are never over. And with more folks subsribing to comments now, that's often true.

Brad said...

I don't know why more people don't see similarities between Obama and Milk?

Jason Bellamy said...

Brad: Such as?