Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

A fantastic surprise, a far-cry from the blasé biopic I was expecting. Of the five Best Picture nominees, it’s far and away the best of the bunch (though personally I’ve seen quite a few other movies this year that weren’t even nominated and should’ve been). Gus Van Sant’s usual stylistic eccentricities are still there (…fuck it, I’m talking about what I’ve seen in Elephant (which I hated), Psycho which doesn’t even count, and about five minutes of Gerry, so I’m completely talking out of my ass here  😛 ), but they don’t drown out the substance of the outstanding screenplay and some great performances. In fact, the style points (documentary-like footage, very interesting editing, non-moving camera often regarding the main players in the scene from a distance, often staged awkwardly, etc.) make it feel more real (never more so than in the final, awe-inspiring candlelight vigil), and warmer, and cozier. The movie makes no bones about siding with Milk’s cause as the first openly-gay American elected to public office and with the gay community and basically painting Anita Bryant and Senator John Briggs as the bigoted demons that they were, but even then it’s not a typical revel-in-the-glory-of-our-subject biopic. Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk is a bold and confident figure who believes in his cause for equal rights, but also who might be going too far. The movie never comments directly on that – never unabashedly glorifies the man and his actions, never outright criticizes any of his questionable decisions (falling for a mentally imbalanced Diego Luna, callously deciding to debate Senator Briggs in the vehemently conservative Orange county, etc.). We just see the man and his decisions as he is, and we’re left to judge as we will. But regardless, Sean Penn makes this movie, from every likable quirk to every physical mannerism to every soap box (literally) speech, every moment of playful domesticity with his boyfriend to a moment of quiet reflection as he relates his story to a tape recorder (a device that’s been overused to no end in this genre, but I’m willing to forgive in this case). But from beginning to end, he exudes confidence, that what he’s doing is perennially right, even if it isn’t, and for that we root for him from the start, get behind him when he constructs an entire culture on Castro Street from the ground up, organizes a march to the steps of city hall, and we feel that sense of imminent dread when an unhinged Dan White makes his slow walk towards Milk’s office on that fateful day. Boy, does Sean Penn get into character 100% of the way. His finest performance.

If I have to complain about anything, it’s that Josh Brolin was underutilized. I could tell what the movie was trying to do in going out of its way to not demonize Dan White, to not depict him as a villainous, insane killer and blot on history, but to try to understand the man. You almost feel bad for the guy – no friends or allies on the Board of Supervisors (the closest thing to an ally being, ironically enough, Harvey Milk, the only Supervisor who went to White’s baby’s christening), a man feeling the pressure of the job and stances that differ from his colleagues’, a man who awkwardly blurts out homophobic things but doesn’t sound like he means them (hell, maybe he’s a self-loathing closeted gay man…there’re certainly hints of it). The movie was trying to understand White’s motivation for doing what he did to Milk and the Mayor that day (besides a lack of Twinkies), and hell, you could argue that we see something of a parallel being depicted between Milk and White, a yin-yang, opposite-equal relationship, the two entwined by fate. If that were so, I still wanted to get deeper into the sad, conflicted mindset of White. Harvey Milk gets most of the screentime (rightfully so, obviously), and Van Sant and the writer, Dustin Lance Black, do a brave thing by trying to humanize and even sympathize a bit with Dan White, to make him something more complex than a city supervisor-turned-unhinged assassin (and Josh Brolin is great in what limited screentime he has – his Dan White is a quiet, awkward (but well-meaning) man with a subtle but unsettling ticking time bomb vibe), but don’t quite go all the way. They test the Dan White waters, dip a toe in, but don’t quite dive into his psyche the way they do with Harvey Milk. But that’s a small complaint, because Harvey Milk and what he fought for should be the main focus here, and they are, and Gus Van Sant presents that in an insightful, exhilarating movie. I hope that it’ll win the big one come Oscar night (and who knows what its chances are with the Slumdog express chugging right along 😕 ), and who knows, maybe it will win, if not for its merits as a great film then as a political statement  by the voters in the wake of the nonsensical passage of Proposition 8 last November. If that’s the case, then even in death Harvey Milk is still opening our eyes to a great injustice being done against the civil liberties of an entire group of people.


2 comments so far

  1. moogirl22 on

    I want to watch it now. 😦

  2. Simon M. on

    then I’ve done my job 😉

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