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Monday, January 12, 2009

Movie Review: Milk Does a Biopic Good

At the screening of Milk I attended a number of people walked out during scenes in which Sean Penn and James Franco were kissing. I had to wonder whether these folks thought they were going to see a film about beverage consumption. Did they not know this was a film about a gay man?

On reflection though I suspect what really bothered these patrons was the nature of the scenes. My wife pointed out that they weren’t as “explicit” as Brokeback Mountain which, in its way, was rather chaste (at least with the two male characters). I think the difference is that much of what happened between the lovers in Brokeback was furtive, whereas Milk depicts a relationship between two men that is sensual, passionate, and clearly enjoyable to both.

The fact that Sean Penn is playing someone onscreen who is capable of the joy that Harvey Milk revels in – of being alive, of being in love, of breaking barriers, of being an activist – is one of the sweetest revelations of the film. More bittersweet are the inescapable parallels between the election season just passed. Like someone else I can think of, Harvey Milk is a canny politician who calls on people’s sense of hope and desire for change. He has a social agenda that is specific but he also knows how to broaden his base and take in broader issues to bring others on board. Hopefully the tragic ending of Milk’s life will not find it’s repetition in real life.

On the other hand there is the state ballot proposition that is a major focus of Milk’s organizational efforts. This film stands as a pretty good rebuke to both sides of Prop 8 – the religious zealots and frightened conservatives who oppose gay marriage and the lackluster organizers who failed to see how badly they would get trounced in their efforts to keep gay marriage legal in California.

Milk is very much a conventional biopic, and that’s not a bad thing. It compares well to two of the best in the genre, David Lean’s Ghandi and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. In itself this is a major achievement for director Gus Van Sant, who has shuttled between pretentious twaddle like Gerry and just plain old twaddle like Finding Forrester. For me, this is his best film since Drugstore Cowboy. All of his experimental trickery is channeled into storytelling – with some brilliant sequences of montage and clever use of archival footage.

The actors help ground this a great deal. Penn is at his best here. He’s been playing bottled up white guys for so long that just seeing him smile radiantly takes him to a different performance level. He effortlessly becomes Milk, eyes dancing with glee at every chance to play and win the political game and to simply get someone to believe in the power of change. James Franco turns in another great, centered performance as Milk’s longtime partner Scott Smith – from frivolous in the opening scenes to weary and wary – but always warm. Emile Hirsch is sharp and sarcastic as Cleve Jones, mostly winning a fight against his huge prop glasses. Finally the amazing Josh Brolin is stunning as Milk’s assassin Dan White – with Blogojevich hair and a screw loose – or perhaps repressed.

Coming off less well is moony-eyed Diego Luna as Milk’s later love interest Jack Lira. It’s the typical biopic role of the companion whose smothering idea of love holds our hero back from accomplishing what they need to do – often through whining and cajoling (see Ginnifer Goodwin in Walk the Line). Luna takes an underwritten part and makes the worst of it. I understand that Milk’s friends find this guy irritating but must we as the audience want to strangle him as well? It leads to a bit of a false note being struck as his eventual exit is meant to be sad and profound. It comes more as a relief.

What this pulls focus from is the core of the film – a sheer unadulterated paean to activism and political engagement that will ring true to anyone who spent the last year chanting “Yes we can!” Milk is portrayed as both an idealist and a crafty politician – an honest portrayal and a fitting one for our times.

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