With the Oscars (which we all pretend to ignore, but ultimately don’t) just days away, Gus van Sant’s Milk has finally come to Norwegian movie theaters. For months I’ve been hearing great things about this movie, and over the last week or so, mentally I’ve been back in the early winter of 1998 (there’s that pesky delay again), reliving the extreme excitement I felt while waiting for James Cameron’s Titanic to finally open. The grandiosity of the Sinking Ship Saga answered to my every demand, and I’m happy to report that Milk did, too, though in a different way. It’s also nice to finally have someone to root for in Best Picture category at the Oscars. As we’ll get back to in a minute Milk probably won’t win, but it’d get my vote anytime.
If my few loyal readers could excuse me for constantly referring to Slate, the magazine’s television critic Troy Patterson recently said that although he liked the movie very much, it’s better politics than it’s art. I don’t share his feeling that those two things should always and forever be kept strictly apart, but he’s still on to something. Just like it’s impossible to watch Darren Aronofsky’s (slightly overrated) The Wrestler without taking Mickey Rourke’s own rollercoaster of a career into account, it would be impossible, maybe even irresponsible not to watch Milk through the prism of the terribly disappointing passage of Proposition 8 in California just this last November. Milk is not so much political in a narrow sense as it is humane, not so much polemical as it is probing.
Take the way it handles Dan White, the conservative supervisor who ended up killing both Milk and San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Moscone. Even though you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, and even though White was an obviously troubled man, I really liked how van Sant’s signature camera style and Dustin Lance Black’s terrific script succeded in making a whole, and – just as importantly – a complex person of him. In a couple of short but essential scenes (one in the hallways of City Hall and the other at Harvey’s birthday celebration), a vulnerable White hints at financial problems to argue that the pay for supervisors should be raised. Later, these troubles were cited as one of the main reasons for why White was so mentally exhausted that he killed both Milk and Moscone. This, combined with Josh Brolin’s quietly dignified performance, never feels as an apology for his actions, but rather as an earnest and brave attempt to make him a whole man, instead of simply a character. Brolin has a face that in itself signals intense self-control, which here serves to make White surprisingly unpredictable and interesting, considering most of us knew going in that he’s going to end up a murderer.
In some of his broadest crowd pleasers (like Good Will Hunting, which I personally still think is great) van Sant has been accused of sentimentalizing his material for popular acclaim. While there are some scenes that could have that effect on a cynic, I happen to think that one of them, a scene in which Milk is handed an anti-gay leaflet by a young boy to the tones of opera music, is also one of the most moving moments in the entire movie. Here I could of course try to say something about how seamlessly the images and the music are integrated, but what I really want to point out is how this scene could stand as a symbol of how distinctively cinematic van Sant’s directorial voice is. Your average biopic often ends up as something of a dramatized documentary, but van Sant transcends these conventions beautifully in the little moments that matter. At any time, he effortlessly uses a variety of different visual and narrative approaches (several scenes are shot so as to resemble old television clips, and original television footage is included, too), in a way that makes Milk speak not only to the heart, but to the eyes as well.
To me, it seems like a very wise move to focus the movie almost entirely on Harvey’s political career, because his firm conviction that he was part of a movement leaves an opening to sketch out the specific cultural circumstances of his service to the people. I love the intricacies of American politics, and the movie’s focus on the craftsmanship of San Francisco politics should itself be enough to counter any claim that Milk is a one-sided hagiography. Sean Penn, in an absolutely electrifying performance in which he finally and definitely comes down on the right side of intense (for examples of the opposite, see I am Sam, Mystic River), portrays Harvey as an idealist, but also as a person who is so dedicated to his cause that he doesn’t always know when to take a step back. While he was never part of the Machine, he certainly was a politician.
But having said all that, I have to go back and modify things a little. While I’m happy there are crucial nuances to the portrayal of Milk, I again have to admit that it wa’s one of those scenes that some people might find overly hagiographic (or in other instances sentimental, see above) that touched me the most. I’m thinking of a scene in which Harvey receives a call from a suicidal youngster in Minnesota, who has seen him in the news. In an effort to try to lift him out of his obvious misery (which would later be summed up in the catchphrase ‘You gotta give ’em hope!’), Harvey encourages him to leave Minnesota and try to make himself a new life elsewhere. To this, the young guy says he can’t, and the camera zooms out from the guy with the phone in his hand, to reveal the contours of a wheelchair. It really is an emotionally powerful moment. If you could excuse me for getting a little personal here, I have to admit that it carried extra emotional weight for me as a physically disabled gay guy. I’ve never felt suicidal nor did I have a particularly painful coming out process, but I still think this scene says something profound about the personal insecurities of being different in a number of different ways.
These were the kind of thoughts Harvey Milk wanted us to get rid of, but he insisted that each and every gay individual had a responsibility to root out the causes of bigotry and prejudice. His campaign against Proposition 6 was grounded on the simple belief that the consequences of the proposition had to be personified, because it would be harder for straight people to vote against the interests of someone they knew. In the movie, this principle is captured in a quite painful scene in which a determined Harvey forces one of his closest advisers to come out to his parents to set an example for others.
It’s hard to know from around the globe, but from what I’ve seen in the American press, it seems like the campaign against Proposition 8 in California last year was based on quite different principles. I’m sure there were large grassroots organizations, but after the proposition passed, the campaign has been critcized for taking a too top-down approach to the matter. If nothing else, Milk taken together with the historic election of President Obama, should inspire people to reject the false notion that politics doesn’t matter. It does.
Still, I felt privileged when I realized my initial reaction to the anti-gay tirades of Prop 6’s Anita Bryant and John Briggs were a combination of laughter and disbelief. But pretty soon, that sense of privilege was turned to shame. Yes, I live in a country with no Christian Right to speak of, and with a Conservative Party (!) whose considering naming an openly gay man their candidate for prime minister, but that doesn’t mean neither a) that I should treat the victories of yesterday as permanently won (there are still two parties in the Norwegian parliament who oppose marriage equality and other gay rights issues) nor b) that I’m in a position, or have any intention of, looking down at the fight that’s being fought by gay rights groups in America every single day. As Harvey Milk might have said it, it’s about You and You and You together making an Us. What’s so great about Milk, is that it’s at it most inspiring when it’s at it most political. Count me in.
Harvey’s relentless hope-mongering thus ensures that the movie is not all doom and gloom. Again, the argument’s not mine, but there definitely is something quite refreshing about Sean Penn playing a sympathetic (but no less complex) person for once, and despite the political hardships they face, it’s also rather refreshing to see the portrayal of gay men who are in no way neither insecure about nor ashamed of who or how they are. I believe it was Slate’s Julia Turner who in a fairly recent edition of absolutely unmissable talkshow The Culture Gabfest wondered whether the generally homo-positive tone of Milk could cost it at the Oscars, because the mostly straight Academy tend to be more appreciative of movies whose gay protagonists are very visibly uncomfortable about their gayness. But then again, a modern classic like Brokeback Mountain was snubbed by Crash, so what gives? Still, Penn’s turn as Milk doesn’t for a second feel like a try-out for the Oscar acceptance speech, in contrast to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (which I didn’t even like back when I was a young and easily manipulated thirteen year-old), or Penn himself in I am Sam, for that matter. In fact, I have to point how incredibly comfortable everybody involved seem to be with playing gay. Much like Penn, it’s also nice to see the brighter side of Emile Hirsch again. His youthful idealism is the best way to view the movement Harvey Milk built, because Hirsch’s restless charm come to symbolize how urgency and wisdom both have to be present if change is to happen. Plus, I don’t care if his hair is a disaster area: I’m totally, unequivocally, heart-stoppingly in love with the guy.
Finally, I just have to urge you to see Rob Epstein’s excellent documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. However ambitious, it’s a suitable title for such a rich and deeply moving film. It will bring you valuable insight into the people close to Milk, and thus bring you straight to the epicenter of ’70’s gay politics. Epstein shows a deep understanding both of the subject matter and of the possibilities and limitations of the documentary as a genre, and of it he creates a film that is as exciting as any thriller, and as authentic as anything you’ve ever seen. See it. Just say Harvey sent you.