Sunday, December 7, 2008
It’s hard to watch the story of Harvey Milk and not think about recent issues in the country, particularly in California, the state where he left his mark. The recent passing of Proposition 8 is sure to weigh in the minds of all who watch this biopic, and it lends an importance to an already great film. As a matter of fact, a lot of Harvey Milk’s life eerily ties in with today’s events.
We meet Milk as a closeted Republican living in New York City in 1970 patrolling subways for potential partners, one of whom (Scott Smith, played by James Franco), becomes his boyfriend. The two decide to move to San Francisco in the hopes of being able to live out of the closet. However, as they move in and set up a camera shop only to find that even San Francisco is no haven. Slowly, Milk builds ties in the predominately gay neighborhood. Before long, he can rally the denizens of Castro Street for anything, from helping unions to driving anti-gay establishments out of business. You might call him a sort of “community organizer.” Hmmm.
After the police raid Castro Street and beat homosexuals for no reason, Milk is incensed to the point of running for city supervisor and, after a number of failed bids, finally wins it in 1977. Surprisingly, yet perhaps not altogether unexpectedly, this final act of the film, the one in which Harvey Milk made history, doesn’t feel quite as important as his days running the Castro Street like a friendly, nonviolent mobster. As with most idealists, he must deal with the cold, sobering reality of bureaucracy. His biggest political enemy is Dan White, a fellow city supervisor and an ardent conservative.
Dan White is most interesting character in all this tragedy, even moreso than Milk. He is played by Josh Brolin, who has been on a hot streak for the last two years and shos no signs of slowing down. Rumors abound concerning White’s sexuality, and whether his role in the assassinations could be perhaps traced to his own self-hating homosexuality. Van Sant certainly hints at this; White is ever opposed to gay rights, but seems to genuinely want to befriend Harvey. He even seems open to voting with Harvey, provided he backs some of White’s proposals of course. When Milk backs out his end of the bargain, White grows to hate Milk. Was Harvey an exit to Dan? A path out of his lie of a life into being able to live in happiness? I do not know, but at any rate it sends an already unbalanced man over the edge.
While “Milk” must inevitably follow the well-tread, clichéd road of biopics, Gus Van Sant manages to buoy the film above most. Dustin Lance Black’s script is full of tender moments, and the anecdotal research he put into the project gives the film a more personal feeling; I did not feel like I was watching an historic figure, but a man, and that makes me identify with it more than the usual slice of hero worship that defines such films. Van Sant mixes documentary footage with the film, making the voices of those who condemn homosexuals all the more affecting. Anita Bryant, a pop singer who famously championed the removal of gay rights, is wisely never portrayed by an actress; we see her as she actually decries gays as child molesters (despite the evidence even then that most molesters are heterosexual) and we feel the rage that many must have felt watching her at the time.
But the film rests squarely on Sean Penn’s shoulders, and he delivers magnificently. Penn is an actor of little, if any subtlety; he throws himself into a role and infuses it with such melodrama that he either triumphs (“Mystic River,” “21 Grams”) or fails spectacularly (“I am Sam”). Here, he is energetic and warm; you can’t help but love Harvey.
There is a tendency for these kinds of films to praise the messenger for the message and not its merits. For example, while I thoroughly enjoyed the romance of “Brokeback Mountain,” I found the film itself to be a meandering, poorly paced jumble that placed more focus on Ang Lee’s visual prowess than the actual emotions. But “Milk” gets it right, and it becomes perhaps the first great mainstream film to deal with gay rights. I don’t think it will convert any homophobes, but it just might galvanize the gay and gay-friendly crowds, who need something to unite them in the wake of Proposition 8.