Friday, January 2, 2009

Film Review: Milk (2008)

Sean Penn is an outstanding actor. Whatever else you think about him as a person--and by the way there hasn't been much reason to think poorly of him as a person in rather a long time--let no one who claims to be a lover of good movies call him anything other than one of Hollywood's elite performers. Is he as good as Philip Seymour Hoffman? Not on Penn's best day. Is he as good as Tom Hanks? No. Is he as good as Kevin Spacey or Ed Harris or George Clooney? Probably, yes: he is.

But like so many other actors before him, his very skill has become his fatal weakness--to become at what should be the height of his career a victim of the entrenched conservatism, some would say laziness, of the most under-estimated influence in film-making: the casting community. Like a more talented Paul Giamatti, a more consistently employed Sam Waterston, like a less funny Ben Affleck, Sean Penn, alas, is a "type." Only difference being, with Mr. Penn the type in question is anything shocking. Need a profoundly disabled character who fights tooth-and-nail for custody of his seven year-old daughter? Get me Sean Penn. Need a shamelessly violent, venom-spewing sociopath who may or may not be guilty of the specific crimes for which he's about to be executed? Get me Sean Penn. Controversial director Gus Van Sant needs someone to play the first openly gay elected official? A character who lives most of his adult life in the Castro district and eventually wins an election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but who finds plenty of time in-between to make out in broad daylight with his boyfriend? Needs him naked for a scene with the boyfriend in a half-lit bedroom? Let the cry go forth from every rooftop, Get. Me. Sean. Penn.

This, sadly, is Milk's undoing. Make no mistake, a script intentionally crafted to convey an unflinching representation of what these individuals were really like and what they struggled against and (briefly) overcame is a laudable approach to the subject matter. Indeed there could have been no other, especially in these times when all the victories that Harvey Milk and his inner circle won for the civil liberties of every American are being so brazenly taken back in unconstitutional referenda from Florida to California and back again. Make no mistake, either, about the choice of Gus Van Sant, who is gay, to direct the film: With a work as profoundly affecting in its ability to normalize gut-wrenching tragedy as Elephant, with his previous explorations of homosexual alienation in My Own Private Idaho and elsewhere, there could hardly have been another choice to direct a film about Harvey Milk without begging the question of what, exactly, Mr. Van Sant had been so busy with at the same time that he couldn't be persuaded.

But somewhere along the white-hot arcs of Penn's and Van Sant's careers they have slipped from being comfortable with unflinching portrayals of taboo-stripping situations, into people who seem to revel in them -- and for this reason casting Mr. Penn as Harvey Milk was ultimately a tragic mistake. With all of that "unflinching-ness" piled so high in every corner of the room like so many bloated little elephants, by the time the film is over it feels less like an honest bio-pic and more like unflattering caricature. Indeed in places it skates perilously close to being offensive. Yes, we find ourselves muttering under our breaths, Harvey Milk kissed other men in public.
Yes, he once picked up a long-term partner on a subway platform in New York City and took him straight back to his apartment and had sex with him, for no better reason than it was his birthday. Yes, he slept with men in his apartment above the camera shop that would be his campaign headquarters in the Castro. Yes he had a boyfriend who killed himself and others who tried. We get it.

But in the end, of course, the very point of Harvey Milk's tragically shortened life is that gay people aren't different from anyone else -- and all of this "let's show Mr. Penn unafraid to kiss men on camera" nonsense has (well at least for me it had) the unintended effect of making it seem as if we were supposed to be continually reminded that they are. Instead of leaving the theater thinking, "Hey, you know what? Homosexuals are every bit as ordinary and banal--and deserving of the same ordinary and banal civil rights--as the rest of us" (as Mr. Milk himself would surely have intended it), I was forced to leave the theater thinking, "Gosh, he effected all of this constructive good in the world, and stood passively while a campaign operative stuck his hand down the pants of the pizza-delivery boy?"

Heaven only knows what the gay community would think of Milk--if it wasn't the closest thing to a sympathetic portrayal that they are ever likely to get. Which of course it is. In the meantime, I for one was keenly aware of Mr. Van Sant's and Mr. Penn's intent to celebrate themselves for all their lack of flinch, and that's exactly the opposite of how I would have wanted to leave the theater feeling about a film that was supposed to make me see homosexuals as just like you and me.

There is also the not inconsiderable problem of the painfully contrived and obvious plot device that needlessly prods us forward through the chronology of the story--namely, Mr. Milk, seated alone in the dark at his kitchen table, narrating the whole thing into a tape recorder "in the event that I am assassinated," which of course we already know that he will be. Mercifully there is almost no voice-over of the individual vignettes from Milk's past, but in a way that only exacerbates the glaring pointlessness of the cutaways to Penn holding that ridiculous microphone, muttering things into the cassette that we are all about to see with our own eyes, anyway. The individuals with whom I saw this movie were split 50-50 on whether the device was jarring enough to pull them completely out of the film, but I didn't hear a single word spoken by anyone on his or her way out of the building that defended those tape-recorder scenes as somehow indispensable to the delivery of the story.

In the end what rescues the film more than any other single aspect of Van Sant's direction or Penn's acting, is the story of Harvey Milk itself. Through its poignancy, through its touching moments of personal affection, through its triumphs and tragedies and, most of all, through its significance to all of us as a canary in the coal-mine of our collective civil liberties, Milk is an experience that will resonate with critics and audiences alike. It deserves to. It's just a shame that, with a few slightly different and carefully placed decisions--with a few strategic reminders to Mr. Van Sant and Mr. Penn, that they were supposed to be depicting someone we could all connect with as being just like us--it could have been so much better.

The Key Grip awards Milk four bald heads out of five. And will scream bloody murder if it wins Best Picture. Which it probably will.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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