Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant)
Are American movies really capable of documenting civil rights struggles? For most film buffs, the idea will inevitably conjure up memories of Stanley Kramer, the great white do-gooder of Hollywood cinema, and his staid and hollow social comment stories like The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. These movies were pat-on-the-back mansplaining affairs, the privileged class trying to make sense of prejudice and disenfranchisement in the most chafing, condescending manner. An attempt at a sweeping story about gay rights would seem inevitably to exhibit the same problems, the same dated sensibilities and weak narrative thrust; we’ve already had a Krameresque AIDS picture, Philadelphia, from a great director (Jonathan Demme) who fell into the trap. His far less interesting peer Gus Van Sant hasn’t exactly shown restraint in his past simplifications of big issues (see Elephant, or preferably don’t). Add to all this the problems of biopics in general, the presence of an often crushingly self-serious actor like Sean Penn, and Milk would seem an award-baiting potential nightmare.
But then you see it, and… It isn’t, not at all. And it’s more than simply good, more than simply vital and pressing — it’s masterfully intelligent, heartfelt, and intensely emotional, the greatest landmark in U.S. liberal cinema since The Insider, and one of the finest biographical films ever made. Maybe the most recent challenge to Oscar respectability is the depressing contemplation of for what possible reason besides homophobia this could have lost to Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.
Obviously, Milk is the story of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, arguably America’s first openly gay elected official, who was gunned down by a brutally jealous and hateful fellow councilman, Dan White (origin of the famous “Twinkie defense” tactic), in the SF city hall along with Mayor George Moscone in 1978. Had he survived, it’s generally believed that he would have gone on to succeed Moscone, but in the end his legacy as a world-changing pioneer and champion of equality for the gay community was already sealed. Milk tracks his life through an abbreviated late start, running across his stunted self-worth and need for a change at his fortieth birthday in New York City, at which point he meets his great love Scott Smith, through an emergence as a prominent gay business owner in San Francisco at Castro Street, through Castro’s transformation to a thriving homosexual haven and community, through failed municipal elections and finally public office, where Milk’s convictions and representation of his community capture a wind of change against a tide of hate sweeping the nation at the time (led by singer Anita Bryant and a host of Evangelicals).
All the while, we chillingly track Dan White through his attempts at comraderie with Milk, his confused campaign for the purported silent majority, and the way that his life falls off its hinges. White’s presence as a parallel track of evil inevitability is one of the reasons Milk escapes almost entirely the typical trappings and flaws of biopics. Generally speaking, a Hollywood biopic runs counter to all structure and storytelling logic because it expects life to bend to our notions of narrative crescendo; there’s seldom any sense of where an actual story begins or ends. In Milk, the hero himself proclaims it isn’t about him — it’s about the movement. As convincingly real and enlightening a character portrait as this is, at a deeper level it’s embroiled in far larger things than one man’s impact. Otherwise why would it begin with his life nearly over? Not for Van Sant here the conventional, time-tested contextualization of an important individual’s story through some hackneyed reenactment of his formative years (in the vein, to cite one example, of The People vs. Larry Flynt). As a result, the film gains economy, focus, and firepower.
Yet what allows it to soar is its engrossing attention to period detail. The audience is thrust into the trenches of the gay rights movement’s Ground Zero at one of its most pivotal eras of fighting for sheer right to exist. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black are slyly cognizant of the absurdity of having to prove one’s basic human rights, in this case the allowance of homosexuals not to have job and home endangered by simple reason of their attraction to the same sex, and even more aware that the fight continues now, even more absurdly. The cast and the sweep of the story render us in complete awe of the movement, feeling as if we’re a part of it, rallying and rioting in the streets of those times. Better yet, in contrast to a lot of Hollywood pictures about gay and lesbian issues, the characters aren’t neutered — they’re shown in love, having sex, breaking up — so that the reasons for their fight are underlined as not frivolous or grandiose things but matters of basic day to day life.
Van Sant takes cues from David Fincher’s Zodiac here, using intricate detail as a form of involvement and accepting the limits of a narrative film as opposed to a documentary — while harnessing the advantages, most explicitly an ability to wrestle with characters’ psychology. Milk himself remains a slight mystery, his character more guarded and limited than many of those around him, but his enigma has a ring of truth; meanwhile, a surprisingly deft job is done of making the motives behind two of the most baffling murders in political history depressingly clear. First, Dan White is rendered as a human being, if an unstable one, and without embellishing reality much at all the film finds ways to draw structural parallel between his life and Milk’s, while the mutual threat of the so-called “moral majority” and the gay civil rights movement is so vividly realized (not a stretch for us these days, sadly), so hate-filled and distressing, we can sympathize when Milk opens the narration with a statement he intends only to be read in the event he’s shot to death. The adherence to truth and journalistic research give this a robust undercurrent absent from so many similar true-life efforts, up to and including the use of sporadic archive footage and a frenetic handheld style that suggests photojournalism and blurs the lines.
It helps Van Sant a lot that he’s assembled a group of actors here putting on consistently flawless, artfully trustworthy performances. Emile Hirsch’s crackerjack activist Cleve Jones (creator of the famous AIDS Quilt) and Alison Pill’s enthusiastic, witty campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (who served as a consultant on the film) give the intense urge to be involved in something, to know these people and marvel at their dedication, to dedicate oneself in turn. Diego Luna’s tragic read of Milk’s onetime lover Jack is horribly sad and compelling, one of many portraits here of casual closeting as psychological torture. Josh Brolin finds complication in Dan White enough to make him much more than a simple monster, the eyes lost and desperate. James Franco will perhaps never be as subtle and endearing as he is in the once-in-a-lifetime part of Scott Smith, a warm presence who put muscle behind Milk’s first few campaigns, inspired him personally to the end of his life, and in the end could handle no further heartbreak.
And then there’s Sean Penn. I did not feel Penn deserved the Oscar he received for Clint Eastwood’s incomprehensibly silly, amateurish Mystic River; his was one of many stonefaced and one-note performances in that film. In general, it’s often been my belief that the infamously humorless Penn did his best work long ago in Fast Times at Ridgemont High as surfer Spicoli. But those words no longer apply. Even with the script’s tentative distance from Harvey Milk as a character, Penn’s performance makes up the difference — haunting, joyous, revealing, even a little subversive. Like the other actors, he manages to disappear into this role. By the end I was in tears — at the loss, at the brilliance of Milk’s accomplishments, at the terrifying world we still live in. No mere icy history lesson or blistering movie dilution of a complicated world, this. You don’t feel you’re watching Penn or these other people simply act these things out, with well-distinguished big actorly moments or any other strained pretension. You feel you’re watching fired-up history, expertly and beautifully told.