Sunday, December 14, 2008

On the Big Screen: MILK (2008)

Has Sean Penn won something, or only been nominated?

Watch Milk and find out!

A confession of sorts: I suppose I'm a bit of a homophobe. That may be too strong of a word, but there's an "ick factor," at least where men are concerned (though I likes me that lipstick lesbian action), that to this day has kept me from looking at Brokeback Mountain or Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. I try to compensate for this by strongly defending gay rights whenever the opportunity arises, but I admit that this is as much based on my antipathy to religious moralizing as anything else. It's probably because I can treat Van Sant's new movie as a political film about the struggle against homophobia, along with the fact that it's set in the 1970s, that I chose to see it today at Albany's praiseworthy Spectrum theater rather than Slumdog Millionaire, which I'll probably get to within the next few weeks.

As a political film, Milk follows the conventions of biopics. The hero has to juggle public and private responsibilities with very mixed results. Harvey Milk loses one boyfriend who wearies of political activity, while another kills himself because he hysterically resents the diversion of Milk's attentions away from an exclusive focus on himself. The movie complicates the formula a bit because Van Sant and company believe that the heritage of the closet influences much of the personal dysfunction that some might blame on homosexuality itself. Milk tells someone that three of four lovers he'd had to that point had killed themselves, and he blames the closet for that. The overriding message of the movie is that gays must go public for their own good. This is demonstrated in the main drama of the film's second half: the defeat of "Prop. 6," an initiative to set up procedures for purging homosexual teachers from public schools. Milk argues (presumably with statistical support) that straight voters are less likely to vote anti-gay if they know gay people personally. He instructs his campaign team to out themselves if they hadn't already, and gay spectators may well feel that Van Sant is addressing them directly through the screen.

Something that surprised and disappointed me about the film was that the ultimate drama of Milk's life, his death at the hands of former fellow San Francisco supervisor Dan White, comes as an anticlimax to the story. This should have been apparent from the beginning, since we see a clip of Diane Feinstein announcing Milk's death about two minutes into the movie. It's a historical fact, so there's no point in building false suspense. But if we concede that point, and we admit that Milk's victory over Prop. 6 is the true climax of the story, we have to acknowledge that too much screen time is actually given to Dan White. That's a reluctant admission for me, since White is played by Josh Brolin, whom I consider one of the hottest actors in Hollywood on the strength of Planet Terror, No Country for Old Men, W., etc.

If the assassination is going to be dramatized (at first I thought it wouldn't), that begs a deeper engagement with the enigma of White. Van Sant is content to leave him an enigma. Milk's team half-seriously speculates that White may be closeted himself, but Van Sant doesn't really commit himself to that interpretation. Nor does homophobia seem like more than a superficial motive for White's action, since he kills the straight mayor first. White may be a movie topic in his own right. Presented here as an outsider in San Francisco, he seeks and wins political office either without realizing or in spite of knowing that he couldn't support a family on a supervisor's salary. He urges Milk to support a pay-raise plan (Harvey thinks it unwise since both want to be re-elected), but it's unclear what money issues, or Harvey Milk, have to do with White's fateful decision to resign, and his more fateful change of mind. These questions may be relevant to a biography of Milk, but probably should be less so for a Milk biopic. This may just be a way of saying that the Milk-White-Moscone story may not yet be fully mined for its cinematic potential.

Dealing with the film on its own terms, I thought Sean Penn was back on form following more hammy recent work in Mystic River (I liked it in spite of him) and the All the King's Men remake. He's willing to do stuff with his hair, along with personal tics that I presume are modeled on the real Milk, that make him really vanish into his role. He has able support down the line, though Diego Luna's performance as Milk's suicidal paramour is problematic because of the difficulty of accounting for his conduct. As I suggested, Brolin is both overused and underutilized, but the force of his screen presence remains indisputable.

Reviewers have noted that this is a relatively conventional effort from Van Sant, and compared to something like Elephant (my favorite of his films) I'll agree. I didn't mind the heavy reliance on news footage because the important thing for a project like this is to embed it in history while making it relevant. When needed, though, Van Sant seems to have all the extras he needs, along with full cooperation from the city of San Francisco as far as locations went. For me, he was most effective at stoking my anger at religious bigots. Today's bigots might not be as blatant as Anita Bryant and her allies in invoking the un-American principle of "God's law," but that belief is still going strong and still claims majority support in much of the nation. I'd like to think that this movie might vicariously let some viewers "know" gay people and thus diminish their homophobia, but the people most in need of such treatment will steer clear of Milk. But apart from my structural complaint, I'd say that this movie would be good even for the lactose-intolerant, as well as those whose intolerance has less excuse.

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