Monday, December 22, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Milk

Milk (2008) 9/10
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) runs for San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay elected official in the U.S., and is assassinated by Dan White (Josh Brolin). Directed by Gus Van Sant.

So, a few weeks ago I reviewed The Times of Harvey Milk, and now I've seen the biopic. It's really an extraordinary work in many ways. It makes a slice of recent history that few know about extraordinarily accessible, it blends real news footage with documentary-style film footage with more conventional filmmaking seamlessly, and the cast is amazing.

Sean Penn is transparent as Milk, he embodies the character fully. He leaps into his portrayal with a kind of gusto, nothing held back, and there isn't a moment of screen time that I didn't believe. The rest of the cast is great. Emile Hirsch, whom I missed in his OscarSAG-nominated performance last year, is extraordinary. It was a kind of now-I-get-it revelation of a performance for me.

But the acting should detract from Van Sant's great work here, as well as that of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. This isn't an easy story to tell. There is, first of all, the decision of where to begin and end, how much to tell. And then, how personal to make it, how political. How much of Dan White's story to tell, how much of various other activists. Include the trial and its aftermath?

They've chosen to focus on Milk with a fairly tight lens, and to make the story mostly political. Milk has a personal life, he has lovers (Scott Smith, played by James Franco, and Jack Lira, played by Diego Luna), but what we know of Harvey is that he is shaped entirely by his political life.

The film is a wee bit of a hagiography. The documentary made clear that Milk was hot-tempered and difficult, and yet that didn't make anyone love him less. The biopic is afraid to go there, and without the dark side of Milk, he seems a little softer than I suspect he really was. On the other hand, there's something very smart about how it focuses on the public record and recollections of friends and associates, it is the Harvey that people knew, not a character study that pretends to know what makes him tick.

(Which is everything that's wrong with biopics, with their facile fictionalization of explains-it-all childhood trauma; I'm talking to you Ray and The Aviator!)

Sometimes there isn't a formative trauma. Sometimes people dedicate their lives to activism because they know it's necessary, and because it energizes and shapes them. That's a good enough reason, and if the people are compelling, we'll get it. Harvey Milk is compelling.

Bring tissues.

(I left my cross-post in San Francisco)