Monday, December 01, 2008


Gus Van Sant's Milk, from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, is a landmark film about a landmark politician, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to major office in the U.S. and a martyr to the cause. What's so striking about the movie, besides the top-level skill with which it's been made and the performances, is the successful melding of a mainstream movie sensibility with an unabashedly, unashamedly gay point of view. So while an elderly woman with whom I saw the movie was a little uncomfortable with the steamy romantic scenes between the male leads, she was nonetheless moved by the picture and found it "excellent." While that may not mean huge box office between the coasts, it does mean that Milk moves the cinematic tolerance bar a previously unimaginable difference -- much as the Presidential Election did less than a month ago.

(WARNING: Some spoilers below, although most of it in the public record.)

On the flip side, there's no doubt that the passage of the gay marriage-bashing Proposition 8 in California lends a greater urgency to the film, particularly as one major sequence covers the battle back then against Proposition 6, which was a rabid attempt to ban gay teachers in schools, as well as (hello, Joe McCarthy) any other teachers who stood up for their gay colleagues. As a piece of agitprop, thanks to that current event, the movie doesn't give the comforting feeling of "work done" that deadens the value of some political pictures. If anything, it deepens the sense that gay rights (i.e. marriage, adoption) are the last major battlefield for civil rights.

Some criticism has been leveled against Milk for being a bit too mainstream in its storytelling. Truth be told, there's a lot of situations here you've seen before -- the rousing "Norma Rae" moments, the long-suffering partner (here James Franco rather than, say, Jennifer Connolly), the dread-implicit destiny a la Gandhi and others. But the twist is a powerful one, giving voice to all those gay men who hid in closets or (per the opening newsreel footage) suffered humiliating arrest for socializing together in the drinking establishment of their choice. And there's a lot more craft in Van Sant's filmmaking here than such critics may be crediting the picture.

Gus Van Sant made a big splash in 1989 with his fantastic second feature, Drugstore Cowboy, an honest, funny, surprisingly entertaining depiction of a criminal gang of prescription medicine dealers. While he hit some commercial peaks with Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, his most recent movies have been lower-budgeted arthouse experiments: Paranoid Park, Last Days, Elephant, Gerry. With their hyper-extended takes, poetically realistic textures and lack of standard psychologizing, these have been almost determinedly non-commercial projects, even if Elephant, a chilling and unusual take on a Columbine-type massacre, did win the biggest prize at Cannes. In some ways, however, the rigor and discoveries in these endeavors lend special qualities to Milk. Even if the shots aren't held as long, they have great integrity, including some Elephant-ine tracking shots at the climax, echoing the same mortal dread if not as punishingly as in the earlier film.

There are two motifs that stood out for me, albeit neither hit so often as to be overly obvious. One is the reflections that foreshadow death, most prominently on a silver whistle lying on the ground (Harvey and a cop standing over a dead gay-bashing victim) and of Dan White, Harvey's fellow Supervisor, in the television screen as he watches Harvey on TV. The other is the shooting through windows, often the Castro Street camera store out of which Harvey and his political team operated, most memorably with an early scene of getting a nasty greeting from an anti-gay neighboring merchant. The two motifs come together in Harvey's office in his final moments, with a rather startling and poignant view from his window, Harvey's last.

Yet for all the deceptively straight-forward storytelling skill, it is the performances Van Sant has elicited from his actors that takes the movie into that loftier sphere, anchored by Sean Penn in arguably his best performance to date. Penn channels Harvey Milk in a way that pays off the promise of much, much earlier roles -- The Falcon & the Snowman, Carlito's Way, where he seemed like entirely different people than any Sean Penn we've perceived elsewhere, uniquely individual yet highly credible character creations. The rest of the cast is perfect as well, although standouts for me are Emile Hirsch (whom Penn directed so well in Into the Wild) as street hustler-turned-activist Cleve Jones, and Josh Brolin as the ill-fated Dan White, once again disappearing into the role and making him empathetic enough to actually earn some audience sympathy.

I got plenty of tears in my eyes during Milk and was glad to have them for a movie of real and, I believe, lasting value. There's nothing synthetic about the wrongs that Harvey Milk addressed in his life, and one can only hope that the remaining injustices get turned around within the next decade if not the next five years. As with previous civil liberalizations by the American public, a big-hearted, powerful mainstream (studio indie) movie like this is bound to make a difference.

The release timing could not have been better.

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