Thursday, December 4, 2008

City by the Fay

There’s a tension between the political and the personal in Milk that is shared by director Gus Van Sant and the man his compelling film brings to life. Milk begins in a New York subway station in 1970, with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay, closeted 40 year-old, picking up the cherubic Scott (and endearing James Franco). The pair head to the Castro, San Francisco’s burgeoning gay enclave. Milk has no plan, but quickly finds himself at the forefront of a revolution.

San Francisco’s, and the Castro’s, place in the contemporary imagination make it hard to believe that just forty years ago, working-class old-timers made the city inhospitable towards gays. But Milk is surrounded by resistance and brutality that inspire him to start a movement in his modest camera storefront. He becomes the first openly gay man elected to major office. From there, he battles conservative foes on the national stage (Anita Bryant, orange juice spokeswoman-cum-Patron Saint of Bible Belt Bigotry) and municipal halls (family values champion Dan White, played with an effective mix of creepiness and vulnerability by Josh Brolin).

Van Sant’s recent films have been restrained exercises in style (Elephant, Gerry, Last Days, Paranoid Park) that abandoned traditional narrative for sometimes gorgeous and sometimes ponderous lyricism. With Milk the director is tempered by three timeworn genres—the biopic, the docudrama and the Issue movie—that often mute their subjects, reducing them to textbook blurbs. Milk avoids this fate and provides an engaging portrait despite a first half that is too reliant on archival footage and Penn's gratuitous voiceover narration.

The director’s occasional trademark flourishes (slow motion, freeze-frames, loooong tracking shots) distract in on an otherwise staid film, but solid, straightforward storytelling triumphs. Penn also dials down his usual histrionics in a subdued, poignant and at times funny performance—is Milk his first character since Jeff Spiccoli to have a sense of humor?

Milk’s political insights comprise some of its most absorbing moments. But Van Sant does not spell out why Harvey Milk tirelessly threw himself into the machine. He was a successful politician, but not a natural. (He lost his first three bids for office.) He was well-liked (with a few glaring exceptions) but not above getting down and dirty and trading favors. But the big question is whether Milk’s political career owed a greater debt to a moral calling or sheer ambition.

This dilemma makes Scott one of the film’s most intriguing characters. Milk could be swayed by a suicidal gay teenager calling from across the country. He mentions that three of his four boyfriends killed themselves rather than step out of the closet. There are emotional reasons for him to seek change. But Scott delivers an ultimatum: me or the campaign. And despite years of longing after the split, Milk lets him leave without an argument. It’s a testament to Franco that his performance elevates Scott above romantic lynchpin. What could have been a peripheral character winds up exposing Milk’s emotional handicap, putting a welcome/humanizing dent in the halo.

Harvey Milk brought progress. But Milk’s closing credits remind the audience of the AIDS epidemic that shortly followed his death. And Proposition 6, the legislation proposed in the film that would prohibit gays from teaching in public schools, brings Proposition 8 to mind. Milk used to open speeches with the line “I want to recruit you.” Hopefully the film will do the same and usher in a new generation of change.

No comments: