Doodad Kind of Town

The Last Word on "Milk
February 1, 2009, 9:41 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I never planned to see “Milk” a second time, but I’m glad I did.

On the first viewing, I was underwhelmed. Yes, “Milk” was a good film, but hardly a great one. Where I had expected director Gus Van Sant to deliver something original and raw, what I’d found was just another conventional “great man” biopic with a worthy, but uncomplicated, social agenda to push. Apart from a few interesting visual flourishes, its only distinction was a terrific performance by Sean Penn in the title role.

But then my friend, Bill, talked me into accompanying him to see “Milk,” and on the second time around, I found myself feeling far more generous. Make no mistake, “Milk” is a conventional biopic. And sometimes it’s just shamelessly manipulative. But as both a portrait of a complex, charismatic man, and as a chronicle of the birth of the gay rights movement, it is consistently fascinating. Even when seeing it for the second time, I was so engrossed and so invested in the story and characters that I found myself ready to forgive its occasional excesses and its missteps.

Was it overindulgent to stop the film cold for a full minute and, with swelling, emotional music on the soundtrack, linger on a grainy, slow -motion shot of Milk passionately kissing his partner on a street corner? Maybe so. But when you remember how many men, like Milk, had been closeted and fearful for years in a society where gay men were ostracized and worse – isn’t it kind of miraculous , even revolutionary, that he can show affection for another man in full public view? That’s worth celebrating. That’s worth bringing the movie to a standstill. There are many moments like that in “Milk.” (among them, another slow-mo shot of Penn, this time riding on the back of an open convertible in the Gay Freedom Day parade and accompanied by Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). They underscore the importance of what Milk and fellow activists achieved.

Some of the film’s other excesses are more problematic. But before I get to those, let me say a few words about the actors.

There are two kinds of good performances in my book. First (and least), the ones you watch and say to yourself, “Boy, that so-and-so sure is giving a great performance.” (This is something I often think about Meryl Streep at work.) Then there are the performances where the actor so fully inhabits the character that you completely forget there’s an actor there. That’s the kind of performance Penn gives here. He doesn’t stand outside Harvey Milk and put on a lot of “gay” mannerisms to play him; Penn IS Milk. Is it a successful impersonation ? I couldn’t tell you that. I’ve known of Milk since the late ’70s, but if he were resurrected and showed up at my door today, I wouldn’t know him from the mailman. All I can tell you is that Penn invests him with an energy, passion and joie de vivre that is infectious. He’ so likable, persuasive and buoyant (and angry,too, but it’s an anger that draws you to his cause) that you really miss him in the brief interludes when he’s not on screen. And when he’s senselessly murdered in the film’s final scenes, you mourn him deeply, not only for what he achieved but just for the person he was. The ensemble cast that surrounds him (including James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Victor Garber, Alison Pill, Joseph Cross, Diego Luna and others) is fine, but it’s Penn who is the shining light, and that’s as it should be.

Josh Brolin plays Milk’s assassin, a uptight fellow city councilman named Dan White. Brolin does the best he can with a role that, to my mind, is underwritten and overly simplistic. The script repeatedly sets up White to be the uptight homophobe we can feel superior to, but the behavior we’re meant to object to isn’t always objectionable. Take for example, White’s reaction to a gay rights parade where several women march bare-breasted. White tells a newsman that the same standards for decorum and public nudity that are applied to other parades should be enforced for Gay Freedom Day. That’s not a bigoted, outrageous point of view – that’s reasonable. But the film plays White for an intolerant buffoon.

That brings to mind other scenes where we get a sense of Milk’s personal flaws and less attractive personality traits; they’re suggested but only glanced at, apparently so that he can retain an uncomplicated martyr/saint status. When he’s invited to the baptism of White’s son, for instance, he’s pressing White for a “yes” vote on an upcoming gay rights ordinance almost the minute the ceremony is over. When White’s wife scolds him that “this isn’t an appropriate time,” we’re meant to understand that she’s a cold, snippy bitch, while Harvey is a great guy: she stomps off while he twinkles: “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!” But is is really so terrible to ask that Harvey move his political agenda off center stage for 10 minutes so the Whites can focus on their baby son? I think he is inappropriate there. I wish the filmmakers would have given the audience more credit; I think most of us could have handled a gay rights leader who wasn’t always right or wonderful.

Meanwhile, on the subject of shameless manipulation – don’t even get me started on that wheelchair-bound teenager from Minnesota who phones Harvey for help at the two most critical junctures in the film. I appreciate that screenwriter Dustin Lance Black probably just intended to show us that Milk was known and admired outside of San Francisco. But these scenes feel so false and obvious, they seem to have been beamed in from some 1940s weepie biopic.

Ultimately, though, there is a haunting aspect to “Milk” which resonates today, and not only because its subject was tragically murdered just as his political career was taking off. The highest emotional point in “Milk” is the defeat of the 1978 “Briggs Initiative,” a California legislative proposition which would have mandated the firing not only of gay teachers, but of any public school employee who supported gay rights. At a time when gay rights ordinances were being overturned in many other states, that was a important victory. Sadly, just weeks before “Milk” was released, Californians voted to eliminate same-sex marriage in their state. You might be tempted to see “Milk” as a testament to how far we’ve come in accepting people of all sexual orientations, but the passage of Proposition 8 is a sobering reminder that we still have a long way to go. At a time like this, it’s good to be reminded of how the gay rights movement was forged, of how utterly important it is, and what it has gained and won for people over the last 35 years. Whatever else “Milk” does, it gets that much absolutely right.

(Totally frivolous follow-up here: Milk’s lover, Jack (Diego Luna), at one point mentions that he watched “All My Children” that day and that a character named Margo died. I was watching “All My Children” almost every day in 1978, in my friend Marcia’s dorm room, and I can’t for the life of me remember any character named Margo. Am I having an early senior moment, or did the screenwriter just get lazy and make something up? Any AMC fans out there who can help me?)


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