Director Gus Van Sant’s recent forays into European-inflected art-minimalism have met with much critical acclaim, but there’s something about those films that still bugs me. With movies like “Elephant,” about the Columbine High massacre, or “Last Days,” exploring the death of Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, it seemed like Van Sant was deliberately choosing hot-button, generation-defining events, and then making the most evasive, marginal films possible about them.
Notably, the “why?” question, which loomed so large over both these events, was entirely ignored by the filmmaker, almost aggressively so, as if showing Cobain shuffling around the woods near his Seattle home in real-time was somehow more illuminating than addressing the issues of illness and disillusion with success that actually plagued the grunge icon.
Fortunately, Van Sant — who I admire greatly, even if he does drive me nuts sometimes — tossed this approach for “Milk,” his biopic on San Francisco organizer and politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, who was assassinated by disgruntled city assemblyman Dan White in 1979. Central to the movie is asking “why?”: Why did Milk decide to stand up for gays, and why was he killed for it?
|Rating||out of 5|
|Director||Gus Van Sant|
|Run Time||128 minutes|
|Opens||Opens April 18, 2009|
Van Sant opens his film with context (remarkable enough, after his last few films): a flurry of headlines and old black-and-white news footage of gay bars being raided by the cops and ashamed men hiding their faces from the cameras as they’re cuffed by the cops . . . all but one guy who, harassed by the paparazzi, blows his top and throws his drink straight into the camera. That sentiment — of finally standing up to bullying and intimidation — is exactly what Milk would tap into.
Van Sant opens his film with a bold gambit: We first meet Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) as he hits on a much younger guy, Scott Smith (James Franco), in the New York subway. Scott tells Harvey, who looks very straight in his stockbroker’s suit, “I don’t date guys over 40,” to which Harvey replies with a smile: “I’m still 39.” Van Sant gets the guy-on-guy kiss over with right here; unlike “Brokeback Mountain,” it’s not a big, daring scene that’s built up to, it’s simply the way it is.
Harvey worries about losing his job if his sexuality is revealed, so freer, hippieish Scott convinces him to move to San Francisco’s burgeoning gay neighborhood, the Castro. The two men open a small camera shop there, but find even the Castro unwelcoming, with threats to close them down, police raids, and constant nighttime assaults on gay men. Harvey realizes the gay community needs to organize in its defense. “What’s with all this activist crap?,” asks a bewildered Scott; “We should have at least one block in this city,” insists Harvey.
The film tracks Milk’s evolution, from closeted broker to bearded, pot-smoking firebrand who could address a rally by starting “My fellow degenerates . . .” He then metamorphosed back into a suit-wearing, clean-shaven, politically savvy operator, forging alliances with labor unions and the elderly, using his sharp sense of humor to disarm straight voters, and running in election after election until he finally won one.
In one sense, “Milk” is a very clear portrait of how things change in America: not top-down, from a president solving problems with a stroke of the pen, but bottom-up, from small groups of people gathering and griping over endless cups of coffee in cluttered living rooms and kitchens.
Van Sant’s film also gives you a clear sense of what drove this man: We learn that three of Harvey’s previous four lovers tried to commit suicide, mainly from the fear and stress of remaining closeted. Milk decides that’s got to change, and when a conservative California legislator launches a campaign to ban gay men from teaching in schools, Milk opposes it, and calls for gay men to come out publicly, to break down the myths and stereotypes. The tragedy of the man is that he succeeds politically, but fails personally.
Sean Penn picked up a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Milk, and it’s deserved. Penn shows remarkable range — not so much in playing a gay man, as in just playing a smiley, funny, gentle, nonanguished kinda guy. Penn disappears into the role entirely, and there’s no greater compliment. Almost as good, if not better, is Emile Hirsch (“Into The Wild”) as Cleve Jones, a flouncy, wiseass street-kid who Milk recruits into his movement. Josh Brolin’s brooding, confused Dan White, and Diego Luna as Milk’s drama-queen lover Jack Lira turn in equally indelible performances.
Van Sant’s approach on “Elephant” and “Last Days” was postmodern to the point of impotence; if we can never really know or understand an event, since it’s all just a multitude of perspectives, then why bother trying? He takes a diametrically opposite view with “Milk,” showing us exactly the significance of this man’s life and death. Milk was definitely a populist character, and Van Sant has given him a suitably populist, immensely likable biopic.