Saturday, January 17, 2009

MILK - beautifully acted political biopic

MILK is a movie about the political career of Harvey Milk, an iconic figure in the American gay rights movement of the 1970s. It is a movie that has been deliberately made to appeal to the widest possible audience and to argue for Milk's place as a political leader in the American pantheon alongside Kennedy and Martin Luther King. To that end, Gus van Sant is less auteur than a conventional, albeit technically accomplished, director. This self-effacement is reflected in the fact that while the lead actors and screen-writer have been nominated for awards, Gus van Sant has been ignored. This is a fair reflection of the relative merits of the movie, but I think it only fair to praise Gus van Sant. In an industry that still does not boast an openly gay leading man, kudos to the openly gay director who willingly dilutes his own experimental, challenging style in the service of his subject matter and his cause.

The movie opens with black and white photographs of gay men in America being rounded up by the filth, quickly establishing how repressive society was. Against this back-drop, an already middle-aged Milk embraces life and love in the relatively gay-friendly district of Castro with his lover Scott Smith. However, even in Castro, gay men have to walk around with whistles, alerting fellow-travelers when they are in physical danger, often from the very policeman that should be protecting them. Instead of just bitching about it, as so many of us would, Milk gets organised. He organises the gays, alligns with the unions, reaches out to other communities and becomes a catalyst for gay rights. Finally, by virtue of hard-slog ground-up campaigning combined with a flair for the theatricality of politics, Milk finally becomes the first openly-gay man to hold high office in America. The film shows Milk bring the fight to the Christian fundamentalists, led by Anita Bryant, and defeat them. He passionately believed that gay men needed to come out, indeed be outed, so as to show the straight majority that homosexuality was not a disease or a perversion or a pseudonym for paedophilia, but simply an unthreatening statement of sexual orientation. To the extent that these issues are, shockingly, still current, the rehearsal of these arguments is still relevant and indeed urgent.

All of this would make for an important historical movie. What makes it engaging and affecting are the personal relationships. Sean Penn and James Franco are incredibly effective in showing us the instant attraction between Harvey and Scott, and their tender, playful relationship in the Castro. It is truly sad to see their relationship become a casualty of Harvey's increasing commitment to politics. I also love that we see both the sweet paternalistic relationship that Harvey had with the young activists in his circle as well as the absurdity of his relationship with the narcissistic, flighty Jack Lira. In other words, writer Dustin Lance Black doesn't give us a paragon.

Which brings us to arguably the most important relationship in the film - that between Harvey and his fellow City Supervisor, Dan White. If Sean Penn's Harvey is charming, effervescent, enjoying his new-found purpose and power, Josh Brolin's Dan White is his opposite: insecure, earnest but unsuccessful. Where Milk takes a dark situation and gets active and takes a stand, White takes a dark situation, broods on it, and finally murders Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

I love what the writer has done here in making Dan White's motives ambiguous rather than straightforwardly homophobic. I also love Josh Brolin's performance. He essays White's descent from naive co-operation to cynicism to murderousness with a subtlety and emotional impact that belies the amount of screen-time he getsIt's also often in the scenes with Brolin that van Sant and DP Harris Savides' directorial flourishes are seen. For instance, I loved a scene where White is watching a successful Milk on screen and sees his own reflection - family man with a baby on his knee - reflected back to him.

Ultimately, this remains Harvey Milk's movie. Dustin Lance Black is less interested in showing us the consequences of the murder, for which see the Oscar winning documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK. Rather, this movie begins and ends with Milk, quite literally reading us his political will, ever-conscious of the high probability he'd be murdered but ever hopeful that even his assassination would be a political victory.

As to my personal reaction to the film, I was disappointed that MILK is more Dustin Lance Black's vision than Gus Van Sant's but I can see why a more conventional approach might have been the best way to sell the message. I was impressed with Penn, of course, and Franco's quiet performance, but more so with Josh Brolin. I thought Harris Savides photography was superlative, and the art director perfectly recreated 1970s Castro. I spent much of the movie in shock at the blatant homophobia and ludicrous logic of Bryant et al. Swedish Lis and I kept turning to each other in disbelief at the bigotry on screen. Perhaps the movie is worth watching if only to shock us out of our post-political-correctness complacency, if Prop 8 hadn't already done so.

MILK was released in the US and Israel in 2008. It is currently n release in Singapore, Spain and Russia. It opens on January 22nd in the Netherlands, Ukraine, Poland and the UK. It opens on January 29th in Portugal and Romania and plays Berlin 2009. It opens on February 6th in Brazil, Finland, Iceland and on February 12th in the Czech Republic and Argentina. It opens on February 19th in Germany, Hungary and Norway. It opens on March 4th in Belgium and France.

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