American Madness

Intelligent Criticism in the Service of a Better Nation

Van Sant milks history for understated biopic

Posted by Jason Ihle | No Comments

Director Gus Van Sant has taken a break from his often inaccessible forays into (almost) experimental film to make Milk, a very typical Hollywood biopic about Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay man to win major elected office and then assassinated shortly thereafter. I don’t use ‘typical’ pejoratively, rather as an observation of how Van Sant’s film follows most of the conventions of the genre and as a contrast to his other recent work. Van Sant also directed Good Will Hunting – a formulaic Hollywood film that I love.

What makes Milk a great film is how Van Sant’s and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s treatment of the subject matter is so understated. They don’t build Milk up as a messiah – a martyr to the cause of gay rights – instead focusing on him as a man who sees a need for changes in San Francisco and chooses to take action. The soundtrack of period pop music and the skilled editing of Elliot Graham bring a fresh energy to the genre. The production design by Bill Groom and cinematography by Harris Savides give the film an appropriate period looking, using lots of drab earth tones rather than the bright colors often associated with the 70s.

Sean Penn’s mesmerizing performance in the title role is a marvelous departure from most of his others. Instead of presenting the dark inner turmoil of the man (characteristics that seem to draw Penn to particular roles), he keeps the character light and energetic. He makes Milk such a charismatic figure you can’t take your eyes off him. And none of Penn’s Mystic River-style scenery chewing is on display.

Black’s screenplay wisely avoids touching on the early life of Milk. We aren’t treated to any of the standard childhood scenes that are meant to explain how and why he became the man he is. You can imagine a lesser film with moments in high school where he endures shouts of bigoted epithets or is barred from participating in activities, ostracized by a community of homophobes.

We first see Milk on the night of his 40th birthday entering a New York City subway station. The year is 1970. He has a meet-cute moment with Scotty Smith (James Franco), who will become his longtime lover. Knowing that nearly everyone who goes to see this film is waiting for the moment when James Franco and Sean Penn kiss, Van Sant gets it out of the way immediately as Harvey gives Scotty a quick one on the mouth before the end of the scene. Perhaps Van Sant learned something useful from his Psycho remake: later in his career Alfred Hitchcock began placing his (by then renowned) cameo appearances early in his films so that his audiences would stop looking and focus on the story.

But here I am focusing on that kiss when Van Sant’s intention is to depict gay relationships in a completely natural way. He certainly succeeds, which is one of the films greatest triumphs. It’s quite common for mainstream films and television to fetishize the gay lifestyle and to present gay characters in one of two ways: the flamboyant, effeminate, shrieking, embodies-every-gay-stereotype version or the completely safe, doesn’t seem gay at all version (consider Jack and Will on TV’s “Will and Grace”). Here we see moments of intimacy between men not oft seen in Hollywood films (including Brokeback Mountain).

Scotty not only serves as Harvey’s campaign manager, but as a true emotional support while he runs for city office in San Francisco several times and loses. His support begins to flag before the fourth campaign, when he wants to get back to being a normal couple without all the other people coming in and out of their lives.

Then, of course, Harvey is elected. He serves eleven months during which he works hard for all citizens of San Francisco – not just the gay ones. One of his landmark proposals is to fine people for not cleaning up after their dogs. He also gets the city’s first gay rights bill passed. Then he and Mayor George Moscone are assassinated by Dan White.

Milk makes an unlikely early alliance with White (Josh Brolin), his fellow City Supervisor, who is not in favor of gay rights. It would have been very easy to paint White’s motive as one of homophobia and bigotry, but this movie is too smart for that. White, an outsider with no political allies, sees an opportunity to push through one of his campaign promises with Milk’s help, but in the end Milk doesn’t support him. That, coupled with a series of other rebukes, lead him to commit his crime. If you’ve ever heard the term “Twinkie Defense,” this is where it originated. White’s defense was that a junk food binge gave him a sugar rush that caused him to murder two people. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and paroled after five years.

In addition to presenting eight years in the life of Harvey Milk, Van Sant and Black still find room to deal with issues of bigotry and the detriment of living in the closet. The points are never hammered home, but are dealt with sensitively and with a light touch. As the forces of the Christian right attempt to push through a law prohibiting ‘out’ homosexuals from teaching in public schools, Milk argues that every homosexual in California has to come out to his family and friends because the more people who personally know a gay person, the greater the chances of the law not passing. It’s impossible not to think of the recent passage in California of Proposition 8, stripping same-sex couples of the right to marry, when we watch these scenes. In light of current events, Milk may be more important now than ever.


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