by Jon Bastian
Gus van Sant’s “Milk” Does Everybody Good
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Gus van Sant’s moving biopic of slain gay activist and city Supervisor Harvey Milk is clearly a labor of love, and the director, in dumping his usual artsy pretensions that make some of his earlier works (Latter Days, Elephant) very hard to watch, hits this one right out of Candlestick Park.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black provides an interesting framework for the tale, beginning with Harvey Milk dictating a final message “to be played only in the event of my assassination”, which allows him to narrate his own story from beyond the grave. And this isn’t a biopic that tries to trawl the meaning of someone’s life from a traumatic childhood incident or, indeed, covers Milk’s early life at all. The story begins less than an hour before his 40th birthday, as he picks up future long-time partner Scott Smith (James Franco, Pineapple Express on a New York subway platform, and races through the very heady times of the next eight years, as the Castro in San Francisco is transformed from a blue-collar Irish Catholic enclave to a modern gay community, and the United States is transformed from a Stonewall-era world in which police regularly raided gay bars and arrested the customers just because they could to a little bit more tolerant place with one less minority subjugated.
Note “a little bit more tolerant.” A large part of “Milk” centers on events in 1978, after Anita Bryant spearheads a successful movement in Florida to overturn a gay rights ordinance in Dade County. That success energizes the fledging community in the Castro and puts Milk at its forefront. When Bryant and California State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare, Changeling) bring the fight to California by sponsoring an initiative that would allow school teachers to be fired for being gay – or speaking out in support of anyone who is – Milk fires up his political machine against a proposition which apparently has the support of two thirds of the voters. The results of their actions are unexpected (to them), leading to one of the most emotional moments of the film that recalled the reaction to the election results of November past. And van Sant’s timing couldn’t be better in releasing the film on the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of Milk’s assassination and in the wake of California’s return to Neanderthal politics with passage of Proposition 8. He’s pointing a finger at everyone who voted for it, and showing them by proxy the faces of the people whose rights they wish to deny.
Politics aside, does “Milk” work as a movie? Absolutely yes. Every element here is dead-on, from opening title archival footage of gay bar busts to recreations of mass protests mixed in with period footage – via which Anita Bryant is practically a lead character.
The casting is absolutely dead-on as well, and this becomes particularly apparent during a closing “Where are they now?” montage showing first the actor, then the actual person. Standouts are Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer) as Cleve Jones, who disappears so deeply into the role that, even though I knew he was in the film, I didn’t recognize him until his second scene. Although he plays arguably the most flamboyant character, it’s clear that Hirsch isn’t “playing gay”. He finds the person underneath the somewhat effeminate boy from Phoenix, Arizona, and gives us the human being. It’s a performance worthy of a best supporting actor nomination.
As Scott, James Franco gives us the opposite end of the spectrum – a very masculine young man who is just as gay as Cleve Jones but who doesn’t fit any stereotype – and he dives into the role (at one point literally) with total commitment. There’s also a real chemistry between Franco and Sean Penn onscreen that is rare when two straight actors play a gay couple.
The differences between the real-life Smith and Jones are probably accurate, but it gives van Sant a very subtle way to remind the audience that some people are obviously “gay” and a lot of others are not obviously gay. Or, in other words, he’s saying to the audience “We are just like you. You cannot hate us without hating your own.”
The center of the film, though, is its title character, and Sean Penn (21 Grams, Mystic River) deserves full credit for being Harvey Milk from frame one. It’s a tour de force performance in which we watch a closeted, tentative man become a confident and powerful politician while still retaining his humanity and a bit of naiveté. Milk managed to do what he did because he didn’t believe it when others told him he couldn’t. When those others involved two powerhouses of the rich, gay establishment, Milk simply ignored them and proceeded on his own, leading to a nice comeuppance moment when Advocate publisher David Goodstein (Howard Rosenman, producer, The Celluloid Closet) can’t get into a victory party when all the cute young boys seem to have no problem. It’s because of Penn’s performance, and the writer and director trusting him to give it, that a lot of revelations in the film come not from dialogue but from Penn’s subtle reactions – and a late-in-the film flashback to a very early scene shows us just how much the character has really changed while maintaining the same core; just how brilliant yet invisible Penn’s work has been. Again, Oscar-worthy.
Standouts in the supporting cast are Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también) as a very spaced-out and insecure boyfriend; Alison Pill (Dan in Real Life) as the baby dyke who oversees Milk’s successful campaign; and Joseph Cross (Running with Scissors) as one of Milk’s original advisors, forced to come out to his family before their campaign can proceed. Van Sant also plants some Easter eggs in the movie. Watch for the real Cleve Jones. Also watch for gay porn star Brent Corrigan and James Franco’s younger brother Dave in a nod to Bye, Bye Birdie.
I have to appreciate the irony of Barbra Streisand’s stepson suddenly making a career out of portraying conservative icons – just as Penn seems to be doing for assassinated liberal heroes — but Josh Brolin (W., No Country for Old Men) gives us a Dan White who, while ultimately reprehensible, is at least understandable. Historically, Dan White didn’t and then ultimately did get what he deserved. As portrayed here, he’s an honest man whose biggest concern is his family, but he lacks the personality and empathy of someone like Milk, so can never form the coalitions needed to succeed politically. White’s tragedy is that he is powerless in a place of power, while watching Milk empower an entire community. It’s also clear from their performances that Milk can and does absolutely understand White’s concerns for his family, while White does not understand Milk at all, and can never have the understanding that two men or two women can also be a family, with the same concerns. As with the other cast members, Brolin humanizes White without making him a caricature, and doesn’t see his own tragedy coming. It’s also to van Sant’s credit that he never panders to the easy answer of Milk’s assassination being a gay bashing. It was not. As with events of the times and Milk’s own personality, it was a lot more complicated than that. Milk gives us the complexity in an understandable way, letting us draw the parallels to current events on our own. If you’re gay, you need to see it to relive an important part of your history. If you’re straight, you need to see it to relive an important part of your history. Everyone else – just see it.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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