Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MILK (2008): Gay Man in Powerful Position

There may be a time when a gay themed film actually wins the Oscar for Best Picture.  I’m guessing that it won’t occur with Milk.  For at least half of a movie we have an unapologetic depiction of the gay lifestyle that will make many viewers uncomfortable.  Predictably, the movie becomes preachy during its second half.  Since the Academy Awards Committee gets everything mixed up, it will be the second half of the movie that they will be impressed with rather than the first part.  In any case, probably the Academy will look for a safe out by selecting another film for the Oscar.
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) moves away from New York to San Francisco with Scott (James Franco) approximately in 1970 as the two of them hope to find a vicinity less oppressive to their gay lifestyle.  The two moves into a neighborhood called Castro and set up a camera shop.   To their chagrin, they discover much of the same discrimination that occurs everywhere else.  In the face of police persecution of the citizens and businesses contained in this area, Milk tries to organize a gay coalition to protect their interests.  (One such effort included boycotting of Coors Beer at gay bars in order to gain support for his coalition from the Teamsters’ Union.)  This leads to him eventually running for Supervisor of the district in which he lives.  Harvey gets rid of the beard and pony tail that he has worn since coming to San Francisco and then buys himself a bad looking suit.  With Scott as his campaign manager, he also recruits for his staff Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), a strong willed young man that thinks the gay community has become too timid, and Anne Cronenberg (Alison Pil), a lesbian that Milk feels will bring into his campaign another perspective.  Milk is defeated in his first two attempts to achieve the office.  But after gerrymandering of various districts occurs to insure that more minorities are elected as Supervisors, Milk finally is elected Supervisor in 1977 making him the first openly gay man appointed to public office in the United States.  Entering into politics damages his private life, however.  Harvey receives a number of death threats.  Scott eventually leaves him because of the public scrutiny.  A second lover, Jack Lira (Diego Luna), hangs himself because he feels life with Harvey is becoming too much of a circus.
With the backdrop of Anita Bryant declaring homosexuality to be a deviant lifestyle, California attempts to pass Proposition 6 that would give school districts the authority to fire school teachers simply for being gay.  The bill was authored by State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) and is opposed by Harvey and the San Francisco Mayor, George Moscone (Victor Garber).  Harvey has a number of debates with Briggs on the subject both in San Francisco and in politically more conservative areas such as Santa Monica.  Harvey and his staff organize parades, make phone calls and attend other rallies in an attempt to vote Proposition 6 down.  The measure is defeated.  One of the other supervisors, voted in from a more conservative district, was Dan White (Josh Bolin).  It’s obvious almost from the start that White has some emotional baggage, but Harvey at first believes that he can make a connection with him.  Harvey attends a christening of White’s child, unsuccessfully tries to make deals with White in return for White’s voting against anti-gay measures that take place within the city, and reluctantly concludes in the end that White will never come over to his side.  White, frustrated that many of his own measures are not being taken seriously by other members of the board, submits his resignation to Mayor Moscone.  However, after White discovers that the factions of the police department do not want to see White leave, White attempts to withdraw his resignation and return to his position as supervisor.  Mayor Moscone refuses to reappoint White, and White then returns with a gun and assassinates both the Mayor and Harvey Milk.  A torchlight parade is then held in honor of the slain Supervisor in the Castro neighborhood.  We are informed at the end of the movie that Dan White only served five years in prison for the murder of the two officials.  White, we are told, was found guilty only of manslaughter due to his lawyers use of the infamous “Twinkie Defense” where it was argued that White was a bit hyperactive due to a diet of junk food.  (Actually, White’s addiction to junk food was only cited by his defense team as a symptom of the depression they claimed White suffered from, but calling it the “Twinkee Defense” sold more newspapers and makes the appearance of injustice seem even greater.)
Milk is more successful as a character study than it is in tracing the evolution of gay politics in our society.  Becoming the first openly gay man to achieve public office is a remarkable story.  But merely achieving the office does not mean the office holder will fail to disappoint.  Realistically speaking politicians promise great things to be elected to office, and compromise to remain in office.  Harvey was fairly typical of this.  That the followers of Harvey are never shown to be disillusioned with his actions adds a false note to this film.  The rallying together of the troops, the film clips of Anita Bryant and her ilk uttering their outrageously pious platitudes about God’s law, and the many characters talking up how Harvey has given them hope, is all very well in a mainstream film but not impressive for a film that has the potential of being something special.  Senator John Briggs can be voted out, Anita Bryant can admit to being a dupe for other political opportunists looking for a celebrity as a spokesperson, and Dan White can be put in jail (for however short of a time) and later commit suicide.  Sadly, someone always seems to replace them.   Proposition 6 was shot down, but Proposition 8 banning gay marriages in the State of California was passed.  The openly gay relationship (and all of the complexities that go with it) that Harvey has with Scott and later with Jack Lira is more significant in Milk because it is not simple.  The desire to openly express their affection in face of brutality, being asked to make a public statement about a private relationship to avoid being crushed by political opposition, risking the abandonment of one’s family by going public at all, just wanting to spend a few moments together with the person you care for without having to think about greater concerns – all are themes which are treated with greater intensity in Milk than in probably any other mainstream movie that has ever been released.  For one-half of this movie – the first half – we have a Hollywood movie that shows courage.
Sean Penn, James Franco and Diego Luna play complete and complicated characters when involved in committed and not so committed relationships on the screen.  Only Sean Penn brings along that same depth when playing a character involved in the political world.  Sean Penn, often accused of overplaying his parts, can never be accused of overacting in this movie.  As talented as Emile Hirsch may be, I found the character of Cleve Jones to be a type (outside of the very first scenes in which he appears).  And we never get to know most of the other gay characters outside of their participation in the coalition.  Josh Brolin as Dan White may be the only other actor in the movie with close to the talent of Penn.  We of course know from the outset that Dan White will eventually kill Harvey and the Mayor.  Nevertheless, we’d be bothered by the character of White as played by Brolin even if we didn’t know that he was capable of double murder.
Director Gus Van Sant has directed more than twenty movies, but only a couple of them were best sellers at the box office.  I was surprised to discover that he directed Good Will Hunting because that film contained the sort of dialogue that intellectuals supposedly engage in.  There’s very little of that same pretension in Milk.  One of the pleasant surprises to Milk is that the storytelling is straight forward and without campiness.  At 128 minutes, I’d say the movie was a bit long but certainly not unbearable like many other award winning melodramas that have been foisted upon us (i.e. Atonement).  Another virtue of the movie is this: we like the character of Harvey Milk in the movie despite his in your face projection of his sexual preference.  At times, Harvey Milk comes close to being too angelic yet we never get from him a sense of smugness or moral superiority.  Though projecting the attributes that are commonly associated with gay men, Harvey proves himself to be a total man.  When he is shot by Dan White, we feel the action was as wrong and senseless as when Mark David Chapman gunned down John Lennon.  Yet we also understand that somewhere in the world sick individuals make heroes of people like Chapman and White.
I’d wager 3-2 odds that Slumdog Millionaire will win the Oscar for Best Picture.  It’s a safe pick and the only other quality movie besides Milk nominated for Best Picture.  The Reader and Frost/Nixon are mediocre films dressed up as being something significant.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button contains some comical elements, but if we remove the special effects aspects we’d find that the movie is average at best.  Milk I believe to be the best of the five nominees. 

February 1, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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