Monday, December 22, 2008

Movie Review: Milk

On Saturday, I braved the icy, largely abandoned streets of Portland and huffed my way (on foot!) through the blowing snow to Lloyd Center Cinema, there to view Gus Van Sant's latest effort, Milk. This film depicts the last 8 years of gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay candidate to be elected to public office in California.

Van Sant has an extensive resumé. His films include absolute jewels like Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For, or the superb My Own Private Idaho. But there have also been some less-than-stellar efforts (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues comes to mind) where Van Sant goes a little too far, takes a few too many liberties, tests the patience of his audience just a little too much. On the whole, though, I tend to give Van Sant the benefit of the doubt.

Well, as with all of Van Sant's work, Milk introduces viewers to an alien, slightly unseemly world that requires an expansion of consciousness, an acceptance of exotic perspectives.

We follow Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) as he travels across the country with his partner, Scott Smith (James Franco) to settle in San Fransisco in the heady days following the Summer of Love. Van Sant does an admirable job of recreating the ambiance of San Fransisco in the '70s. The city is a jewel, the Amsterdam of North America, and it seems obvious that Van Sant has a special love for it. As I viewed the film, I was taken back to that magical (and frightening) city that I had experienced on family vacations.

The film chronicles Harvey Milk's personal transformation, as the new liberation of post-60's America brings him out of the closet, as he recognizes a need for public acknowledgement of homosexuality, and as he becomes an ardent advocate for change. Milk goes from a long-haired hippie with a megaphone on a street corner to a suited City Councilman over the course of 8 years, suffering many defeats, but gaining just enough triumphs to drive him onward. Viewers follow not only Milk's life, but the lives of those around him that supported and motivated him in his efforts.

Apart from Sean Penn and James Franco (who give the two standout performances) the film also includes Emile Hirsch as activist Cleve Jones and Josh Brolin as City Councilman Dan White, Milk's assassin.

Although largely a successful effort, the film suffers from a tinge of self-indulgence. Van Sant pays tribute not only to Harvey Milk, but to all of the peripheral figures around Milk: Cleve Jones, Dick Pabich, Rick Stokes, and others. These persons may have significance in the gay community, but to the public-at-large they are unknown. The inordinate attention paid them in the movie seems sycophantic and indulgent.

Further, Van Sant's depiction of the assassin, Dan White, seems scornful and demeaning. White is portrayed as a moron, a drunk, a social neanderthal. Understandable, I suppose, but it robs the film of a certain objectivity.

I guess, to sum it all up, I'd say this film is worth a look. If Van Sant's intended audience is the gay community, I'd say it is a smashing success. But if the audience is to be the general viewing public, Van Sant could probably do more to make his work more accessible.


Shus li said...

Thanks for the review.

I might trudge 0.5 mi to the movie store for it when it comes out...

Anonymous said...

I must disagree with your points about the movie's inclusion of peripheral characters. Those characters were extremely important to Milk's life, and to what he accomplished. Showing that a community is needed to foment change seems like a valid part of the movie to me.

Also, I think Van Sant did a great job with Dan White, turning him into a very real, very complex human being.

Happy New Year! Cheers!