Tuesday, December 2, 2008


If it isn't the best film of the year, it's damn close. Milk succeeds on many levels, from the tightness and intelligence of Dustin Lance Black's script to what it does for Gus Van Sant's famously/notoriously meandering directorial style. The efficiency and fine pacing of Black's writing reins in Van Sant's tendency towards excess. While the director enters one of his trademark musical/stylistic reveries during Harvey Milk's first sex scene with his true love, Scott Smith (played with understated excellence by James Franco), his mark as an auteur is most recognizable throughout the film via idiosyncratic, often revealing camera angles, and of course the subject matter -- gay culture -- which he's dealt with since his earliest films, including his breakthrough, My Own Private Idaho. Van Sant's disciplined yet always engaging take on gay politics, however, is a new approach for him, and since Black balances the personal and the political with extraordinary skill, there's never a moment when you're liable to think: "All right, already, let's get back to Milk's personal life," or: "Enough about his relationships; let's have more politics!" Everything is interwoven in the film as in life, and as it certainly seems to have been in Milk's life.

I predict Oscar nominations for the film, for Van Sant, and for Penn, and I think Penn has a strong chance of winning. (Van Sant should have a good chance, too; the film, if it wins, could somewhat avenge Brokeback Mountain's wrongful loss to Crash a couple years back.) But Josh Brolin, who plays Dan White, one of Milk's fellow city supervisors, also deserves a lot of praise, particularly for what must be one of the best drunk acts I've seen in movies. At one point fairly late in the film, White crashes Milk's birthday party, and when he first enters the scene it's unclear what's wrong with him -- is he simply in a state of emotional tumult, or is he drunk? As I mentioned to one of my friends, this is how it is with drunk people you don't know very well; it takes a few moments, or even longer, to determine whether they've had too much to drink.

The scene is a turning point in Brolin's performance, because White's drunkenness gets him close to revealing things he's been tightly guarding, and the actor does a superb job of taking his character right up to the edge of confession without ever letting us believe he'll actually do it. Other performances in what amounts to an ensemble are strong -- Emile Hirsch is spot-on as a young prostitute whom Milk unexpectedly recruits and turns on to politics, and Alison Pill is sharp as the sole female operator on Milk's staff -- and it's a testament to Black, Van Sant, and Penn that the leading man is able to give such a full-bodied, full-hearted performance (well described in David Denby's review) without overshadowing everyone else -- instead, he generously draws them closer to him, and they achieve greater heights by working off his energy.

Milk doesn't dumb down politics or sex or love, and though Anita Bryant and California state senator John Briggs aren't presented in particularly complex terms (Bryant appears only in historical footage), Milk's philosophy of trying to make allies out of enemies resonates throughout the film, checking the audience's impulse to direct at Milk's rivals the kind of unthinking hatred they themselves are spouting. The film also succeeds in being timely, in light of California's recent Prop. 8, which bans gay marriage -- so much so, in fact, that a friend remarked that it's a shame the film wasn't released before Election Day. Milk seems especially poignant in the context of the protest marches that recently occurred across the country, including here in Seattle (I attended the one on Capitol Hill). Watching Milk, in the film, lead angry protesters through the Castro and down to City Hall, I couldn't help but notice how similar their march seemed to ours.

There's cause for despair in the fact that such marches are still necessary, and though Prop. 8 might not seem quite as heinous as Prop. 6 (which sought to rob gay teachers of their jobs), its intent is just as hurtful, wrongheaded, and dangerous. But as Hendrik Hertzberg notes in The New Yorker this week, the anti-Prop. 8 protests seemed less angry than the street marches that Milk led; there's a growing sense that the problem is no longer as much societal as generational, and that when the older set dies off, today's young people -- ready to accept gay people as, simply, people -- will have all the power they need to keep measures like Prop. 8 off the books, or to repeal those that are already law, on the simple basis Milk would have pointed out: They defy the Constitution.

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