Friday, February 13, 2009

Review - Milk

Whenever we watch a film about prejudice or injustice that is set in the past, we are somewhat comforted by their historical context. We can reassure ourselves that we live in a more enlightened age, that such ignorant beliefs are now expressed by a tiny, insignificant minority, but sometimes we need to be reminded that we're not as far removed from those days as we would like to think. While we celebrated momentous change in November, with the election of Barack Obama to the American Presidency, the state of California was taking the regressive step of voting to ban gay marriage, essentially decreeing that homosexuals are not deserving of the same civil rights as everyone else. The decision reminded us that the battle for complete equality has not yet been won, and it lent a sense of timeliness to Gus Van Sant's Milk, which is a film set thirty years ago that speaks to the way we live now.

Milk doesn't come across as an overtly political film, though. The first impression we get of the picture is how warm it is, how Van Sant is keen to explore the man more than the message, and helping the director achieve this goal is Sean Penn, who offers what is surely the most revelatory performance of his career in the title role. Penn has given great displays of acting before, of course, but when was the last time we saw him be this light-hearted or compassionate? He inhabits Milk to an astonishing degree, never overplaying the voice or the mannerisms, and expressing the man's innate decency, integrity and canny political nous. It's not a "transformative" performance in the sense that we usually understand it – he undergoes no enormous weight gain or prosthetic enhancement – but he's playing notes here that we haven't seen him play before, and it's simply amazing. Our first glimpse of Harvey Milk sees him in fatalistic, introspective mood – sitting in his kitchen, making a recording that he intended to be played in the event of his assassination, and which acts the film's narration – before jumping back almost a decade to find him in New York on his fortieth birthday.

On the subway, Milk picks up Scott Smith (James Franco), who is charmed as we are by the older man's self-deprecating wit and honesty. "I'm forty years old and I haven't done a thing," Milk complains, as the pair finish off his birthday cake in bed, but they then move to San Francisco together where Harvey Milk, finally, does something. From their base in a small camera shop, he gradually becomes a central figure for the local area – the de facto Mayor of Castro Street – and as he sees fellow homosexuals being beaten by police for simply walking arm in arm, he becomes an activist for gay rights. Van Sant opens Milk with archive footage of gay bars being raided, and society's prevalent homophobia is a constant presence in the film, personified by the conservative singer and anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant (appearing in archive footage here) and Senator John Briggs (played by Denis O'Hare). These are the people with whom Harvey Milk battles as he grows in political prominence, becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, and giving his community a voice where it previously had none, but the most pivotal battle he fought – one that would ultimately cost him his life – was with fellow councillor Dan White.

The conflict between Milk and White is the film's dramatic core. There are other strong performances and characterisations all over the picture – Franco as Milk's supportive boyfriend, Emile Hirsch as a feisty campaigner – but Josh Brolin provides Penn with his most effective foil. Dan White was the man who shot and killed both Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978, but he is not demonised by the film, and instead I felt an odd sense of sympathy for him as his part in this tale played out. White appears as a man out of his depth, failing to come to terms with the changing face of his city, and Brolin magnificently suggests a steadily building sense of confusion and resentment which explodes in the final reel. "You're not like most homosexuals are you, Harvey," he says at one point; "Do you know a lot of homosexuals, Dan?" Milk slyly retorts, and that line gets right at the heart of White's dilemma. He has never encountered anyone like Harvey Milk, and he has no idea how to play him.

There will be accusations levelled against Milk, arguing that the film is too middle-of-the-road and conventional, a formulaic biopic, but I think the old-fashioned approach works in its favour. This is the most straightforward movie Van Sant has made in a decade, but it's also the most satisfying, with the story gaining a sense of momentum and increasing emotional force as it heads towards its tragic finale. Dustin Lance Black's screenplay strikes a wonderful balance between the personal and political, between lightness and pain, and while Van Sant does occasionally toss in an idiosyncratic directorial flourish (a scene reflected in a whistle, Gus? Really?), he's generally astute enough to know that this story will only benefit from a regular rendition. Who cares if a film is unambitious in its construction when it's as rousing and involving as this?

A few days before I saw Milk, I watched Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which acts as a perfect companion piece to Van Sant's picture, asthe two films focus on different aspects of their subject's life. Whereas Scott Smith barely merits a mention in the documentary, and Jack Lira (played in Milk by a highly-strung Diego Luna) is omitted completely, Epstein does give us more background on the Milk's political legacy, and he devotes a lot of time to Dan White's farcical trial, which prompted riots in the streets from Milk's infuriated supporters. Both films, however, close on the incredibly powerful image of a dark road filled with light, from a candlelight procession that saw 30,000 people march in honour of his memory. It's a stunning sight, and it brings home just what a remarkable impact this one man had – how many boundaries he broke for the gay community, how many perceptions he changed, and how many lives he touched. "You gotta give them hope," Harvey Milk said, and that's exactly what he did.