Thursday, December 4, 2008

Milk: Standing tall

Milk (2008) • View trailer for Milk
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.4.08
Buy DVD: Milk • Buy Blu-Ray: Milk [Blu-ray]

Serendipity is fascinating.

At the point director Gus Van Sant began work on Milk, California's Proposition 8 probably hadn't even been drafted, let alone transformed into the ugliest campaign of the just-concluded election. At some point during filming and post-production, of course, the film's cast and crew must've noticed the rising storm in the Golden State ... but, even then, completing the picture and securing a release at precisely this point in time, literally on the heels of the Prop 8 results, would have been an impressive feat.
After mainstreaming his image and carefully courting important neighborhood
allies — and thanks to a successful ballot initiative that replaces citywide
representation with more regional district elections — Harvey Milk (Sean
Penn, center) triumphs during his third run for the San Francisco Board of
Supervisors. But the hard work is just beginning...

If Van Sant and Focus Features pulled it off deliberately, more power to them.

If it's sheer coincidence ... well, such things have happened before. (The China Syndrome comes to mind.)

Because while Milk would have been regarded as just another biopic — albeit an engrossing and superbly acted one — at any other point in history, its release now will be linked forever to the real-world events that evoke such a sickening echo of what happened in San Francisco almost 20 years ago to this day.

Although Van Sant's film is fueled by Sean Penn's skillfully shaded portrayal of Harvey Milk, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black also deserves considerable credit for the way he has condensed six tumultuous years in his subject's life, while still paying attention to both Milk's public and private life.

This won't be an easy film for homophobes to watch, since Van Sant and Black unapologetically deal with Milk's love life ... albeit with a level of tasteful restraint rarely applied to heterosexual coupling these days, which often exploit as much frontal female nudity as possible. In comparison, Van Sant is fairly discreet.

But then I suspect this film's audience won't include too many of the people who contributed — either financially, or through their votes — to the recent passage of Prop 8. They are excoriated in absentia here by the way this film indicts the ugly behavior of Bible-thumping activist Anita Bryant and California State Senator John Briggs.

Although gay issues continue to be a lightning rod, we may perhaps take comfort from the fact that far fewer people are willing to be as bestial as Bryant and Briggs were, two decades ago. The former lobbied successfully for the repeal of gay rights ordinances in St. Paul, Minn., Wichita, Kan., and Eugene, Ore.; the latter sponsored 1978's Proposition 6, seeking to ban gays from teaching in California public schools, and to remove known homosexuals and their supporters from their posts.

Talk about witch hunts...

All these events are covered in Van Sant's film, which begins in New York in 1972, as Milk meets and then moves to San Francisco with Scott Smith (James Franco). Seeking a haven from the police brutality in the Big Apple — where cops routinely bust and rough up "queers" on trumped-up charges — the two settle in the Castro District and open a camera shop.

Although something of a haven, the neighborhood remains somewhat polarized for a few years, during which time Milk becomes a self-taught student of political savvy.

It's fascinating to watch the transition in Penn's performance: initially wary about being uncloseted, but slowly becoming more secure about that; then gradually remodeling himself into an impassioned and compassionate builder of allies, who grows to understand the wisdom of forging unlikely affiliations with other special-interest groups (Teamsters, senior citizens and so forth).

Despite numerous setbacks and the increasingly complex demands on his time and talents, however, Milk never loses the adorably sweet and gentle nature that makes him such an effective leader and — eventually, if briefly — politician.

We tend to think of Penn as a harsh and angry actor: a tightly wound force of nature whose best work emerges in harrowing films such as Dead Man Walking and Mystic River. But Penn's work here is distinctly contrary to that image, and it's almost difficult to take at face value; we half expect, during this film's first act, that Penn's Milk will become tough and hardened in a way that didn't occur in real life.

But no; it never happens. Penn's portrayal here remains constant throughout; no matter how devoted Milk grows to the cause, he retains the vulnerability — the giddy flirtatiousness that so attracts him to fledgling love affairs — that eventually proves fatal.

For, in the end, Milk was guilty of being far too trusting of those he believed could be molded into colleagues. A firmer streak of cynicism would have served him well, but then he probably wouldn't have been so beloved by those who stood loyally at his side.

I can't help comparing Penn's work here to that in the botched 2006 remake of All the King's Men. Where he utterly failed to convey the rise of Willie Stark as a political animal in that film — due as much to a clumsy script as Penn's own unconvincing performance — he's spot-on here as Harvey Milk, and we grasp every heartbeat of this man's evolving political awareness.

Franco's performance as Smith is equally complex and achingly poignant. Smith is devoted to Milk to a point, and stands by his older lover's side through several failed political campaigns; each one takes a severe toll on the relationship, and we see the growing pain and disenchantment in Franco's eyes.

The supporting players bear an almost eerie resemblance to their real-world counterparts — as proven during the film's closing credits, which match actor images with archive photos — starting with Emile Hirsch's captivating performance as ebullient activist Cleve Jones. Alison Pill is equally memorable as Anne Kronenberg, the first woman invited to join Milk's political machine, when she is hired to manage his third run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Diego Luna is nervous-making as the jittery and demanding Jack Lira, who becomes Milk's lover after Smith's departure; it's a ghastly mistake on Milk's part, and we sink ever more into our seats, as this willfully ignorant boy-toy becomes more and more of a liability.

All other supporting players pale, however, next to Josh Brolin's reading of religiously devout ex-fireman Dan White, elected supervisor of San Francisco's conservative District 8. While Penn's work is captivating, Brolin's performance is hypnotizing: a portrait of tightly coiled frustration, building fury and — as Van Sant and Black would have us believe — repressed homosexuality.

Milk, clearly believing White to be a decent man who could be converted and molded, begins an unlikely relationship with him; they meet socially, and Milk even attends the christening of White's child. But Milk, for all his skills at reading people, seems blind to the demons that rage beneath White's almost laughably bland exterior; Brolin conveys this inner turmoil with impressive subtlety.

Talk about an actor having a great year; Brolin easily could be nominated for best actor for W, and supporting actor for this film. Both performances, while not intended to reflexively mimic their real-world counterparts, certainly convey a persuasive sense of what motivates each man ... along with the self-destructive qualities that doomed them.

Van Sant works in his more straightforward mode here, minimizing his idiosyncratic tendencies to tell a story more in the manner of his mainstream hits, such as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. (Thank God we're spared the deliberate weirdness of, say, Elephant and Paranoid Park.) Indeed, Van Sant's approach is more strawberry-lensed documentary than drama, these recreated events and people sometimes playing out against archive newspaper articles and TV news feeds.

It's an impressively seamless blend, made more convincing by cinematographer Harris Savides' deliberately grainy film stock, which evokes the story's late 1970s setting. Van Sant's film feels much more real as a result, and by the time Milk and White have their moment of awful destiny, we're emotionally involved with these two characters, and the actors have ceased to exist.

The story's epilogue and closing text crawls are sobering, and we can't help wondering how Milk would respond to what just happened in California. I suspect, however, that he'd grab a bullhorn, stand atop a wooden crate whimsically labeled "soap" and greet the frustrated crowd, as he does so many times in this film, and turn setback into opportunity by bellowing, "My name is Harvey Milk ... and I'm here to recruit you!"

As personal anthems go, it remains one of the best.

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