Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Passion of the Milk

2008 gave us one incendiary political film, a perfectly timed call to action for one of the great contemporary crises facing our population. Unfortunately, Wall-E wasn’t nominated for best picture… Instead we got Milk, which is about how awesome gays are. It has been said that Milk comes to us at least a decade too late, and that Hollywood owed the gay community a portrayal of the first openly homosexual person to hold citywide office. Perhaps so, but I’m willing to extend Hollywood a collective benefit of the doubt.

Consider Harvey Milk’s life and death. Here is a former Navy Seal who campaigned for Barry Goldwater and had a thing for suicidal men. He moved to San Francisco, opened a business, and became so irritated with the city’s absurd tax policies and hostility to commerce that he ran for public office. Along the way, he formed rather unique alliances, frequently speaking before Jim Jones’ (yes that Jim Jones) congregation.

As his reputation grew, he became a leader within the homosexual community, until he was murdered just days after the Jonestown suicides. The man accused, Dan White, was a lunatic whose lawyers invoked the now famous “Twinkie defense”, claiming that Mr. White was hopped up on junk food when he murdered Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

That’s a lot for one script, but the drama of Harvey Milk’s life lives in these essential paradoxes. Milk became a crusader for gay rights, and certainly became a tragic figure. But that’s the stuff of after school specials. Unfortunately, an after school special is all writer Dustin Lance Blank felt compelled to offer us. This is a hagiography, not a biography, and it isn’t half as compelling as the man himself.

The script is a tedious exercise in sophomoric screenwriting clichés. Heavily reliant on narration, the film’s underwritten supporting cast exists as a foil for Milk’s speechmaking. In an effort to gin up drama where none exists, the movie steals the opera motif from Philadelphia (another message movie that could have ran at 3pm on ABC), and creates a subplot wherein Dan White, Milk’s eventual assassin, is a closeted homosexual.

Oh, and the movie even ends in a candlelight vigil. Didn’t see THAT coming.

There is no reference to the Jim Jones affiliation, even though the Jonestown Massacre itself impacts the plot line ***SPOLIER ALERT*** Dan White snuck into city hall through the basement to avert metal detectors installed the day after the suicides, and would likely have otherwise been flagged by security. ***END SPOILER ALERT*** No mention is made of his publicly outing homosexuals who did not wish to be outed.

Plot points are introduced, then quickly discarded. Consider the scene featuring Milk’s new campaign manager, who is (gasp) a woman. After some pointed glances and a quick introduction, Milk tells her that he has been looking for a real dyke to keep the campaign in line. She responds by saying “well, you got her”. The scene abruptly ends, and she isn’t heard from for another thirty minutes.

Harvey’s main squeeze, Scott Smith is, apparently, the most boring human being ever to have lived. In an apparent effort to imbue some sort of chemistry between the two, they have cake fights. Cake fights happen in Kate Hudson movies, when the director realizes he doesn’t have any interesting material to work with.

Of course, all the boredom and whitewashing is standard operating procedure for the Hollywood biopic. But that’s the point. This SOP biopic was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. Why? Politics.

Milk’s climax revolves around California’s Prop 6 initiative in 1978, which would have mandated the firing of homosexual teachers AND anyone who supported them. Film critics inevitably drew a comparison between Prop 6 and the recently passed Prop 8, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Setting aside the question of whether a film becomes better by virtue of its fortuitous release date, the two proposals were wildly different. Prop 6 was an obvious infringement upon free speech and civil liberty. It would have led to witch hunts and mass firings throughout the school system. It was even opposed by Ronald Reagan (to its credit, the film actually mentions this) and probably didn’t need Milk’s opposition in order to fail. Prop 8 was a question of whether to reconfigure an existing privilege (marriage is not a right, by any definition of the term) to apply to a broader population.

As such, I’m left to evaluate the film on the merits, and the film does have some. Director Gus Van Sant does a great job of placing these events in the context of a legitimate civil rights movement. He artfully recreates the look and feel of the Castro district in the 1970s, and accomplishes the difficult task of making crowd scenes look authentic.

Sean Penn, to his credit, refines his indulgent impulses that usually make him unbearable to watch. Even at the end, when the script gives him the Oscar-preening trifecta (death of a lover reaction, big speech, death scene), he stays in character and does not overact. James Franco and Emil Hirsch do well with what very little they have, though the same cannot be said for a wooden Josh Brolin, whose appeal eludes me generally.

Hollywood has shown that it can make movies about homosexual characters (see, for example Brokeback Mountain). In a sense, Hollywood still has yet to make a movie about Harvey Milk. This is the story of a political movement, and about how awesome that movement is. But hagiography is boring; the fact that Milk scarcely registered at the box offices demonstrates as much.

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