Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Movie review: Milk
Though there are still plenty of strong films yet to come this year, Milk stands as the benchmark to which all of them should aspire.
The history of gay characters in mainstream cinema is a wide-ranging one, though the majority of appearances have been limited to either comedic stereotypes and/or supportive best friends/hairdressers/stylists/designers, the better for audiences to recognize them and accept their presence. Even Brokeback Mountain, the breakthrough Ang Lee film depicting two cowboys in love, was about gay characters not fully living because they weren’t able to be out and open about their relationship.
Milk is the first mainstream film I can think of where the gay characters outnumber heterosexual ones by a wide margin, and where they’re also fully-realized people, not just caricatures that are there to entertain. There’s no better story in which to depict such characters than that of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California.
Milk shows Milk (played brilliantly by Sean Penn) in the most important period of his life, 1970-1978. When he meets his soon-to-be longtime lover Scott (James Franco), Milk states his regret that he’s 40 and hasn’t done anything yet. That changes soon as Scott convinces him to take control of his life, and they both move from New York to San Francisco, settling in a neighborhood known as the Castro and opening a camera shop.
The Castro soon becomes dominated by a gay population, and when Milk sees various injustices being experienced by his gay friends (not to mention himself), he decides to take action, first by becoming a community organizer and then deciding to run for the office of City Supervisor (i.e. city councilman). Though he failed at his first attempt in 1973, the film shows his rise to power, eventually resulting in his election in 1977.
Milk uses his position to continue to crusade for gay rights, culminating with his fight against California politician John Briggs and singer Anita Bryant to try to prevent the passage of a statewide ordinance (known as Prop. 6) that would force schools to fire all gay teachers and anyone who supported them. This successful battle comes off as more than a little ironic, as the film is coming out soon after another gay civil rights battle – the right for gay people to get married – was fought (and lost) in California.
The story of Harvey Milk is one of the most famous ones in gay rights history, so director Gus Van Sant takes a bold step at the beginning of the film, acknowledging the ultimate fate of Milk – his assassination (along with Mayor George Moscone) at the hands of fellow City Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). Much like American Beauty, however, this knowledge only serves to heighten the drama of the film rather than diminish it.
The drama is helped immensely by the inclusion of assorted real life clips from the era, lending veracity to the proceedings. Like most biopics, Milk takes certain liberties with the story, condensing events or changing timelines somewhat. But by showing historical footage (especially an ending scene that’s virtually identical to one filmed for the movie), Van Sant has given the film a credence that it might not otherwise have had.
Of course, the biggest reason the film succeeds is Penn’s performance. From minute one, he disappears into the role, basically becoming Harvey Milk. Penn is so magnetic throughout that it wouldn’t be a surprise if he inspired some audience members to go out and get active in their own communities.
It also helps that he, along with almost every other gay character in the film, is shown to be three-dimensional and multi-faceted. Though all of them are recognizably gay, none of them exist solely to facilitate some moral lesson or aid a heterosexual character. No, in Milk, the gay characters are the focus and the film is that much more powerful because of it.
Though there are still plenty of strong films yet to come this year, Milk stands as the benchmark to which all of them should aspire. It contains acting and drama of the highest order and should be considered a frontrunner come Oscars time.