milkposterstarring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and Emile Hirsch
written by Dustin Lance Black & directed by Gus Van Sant
Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.

In the 1970s, Harvey Milk (Penn), is inspired to move to San Francisco with his new boyfriend and eventually to campaign for political office in an attempt to combat the anti-gay bigotry he sees all around him. Eventually, after a series of hard-fought elections, he becomes the first openly-gay man elected to major political office (city supervisor) in the United States. Overnight, Milk becomes an inspirational figure to a community of individuals that have felt threatened and marginalized throughout their entire lives, but the real battles have just begun. However, Milk’s crusade is cut tragically short when, for reasons that remain cloudy, he, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone, is assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White (Brolin), a conservative Catholic, in 1978.

I know that this is an Important Movie that communicates Important Ideas, because it told me so (several times, in fact). To paraphrase Harvey Milk’s catchphrase: This film’s name is Milk, and it is here to recruit you. Perhaps its cause is a just one, but when the message cannot be communicated without waving it in the audience’s face like a banner, and draining heroes and villains alike of moral complexity, then the storyteller has utterly failed. And Milk‘s screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, has utterly failed.

I really have no other significant complaints about the film. Penn has a very magnetic screen presence, well-suited to the portrayal of a man whose charisma must have been formidable. His co-stars also do notable work. Brolin’s Dan White is, unfortunately, inscrutable, but this is doubtless a failure of the writing, or (thinking more charitably) simply because no one really knows what drove to White to act as he did. Van Sant is a good director, and Milk is solidly-constructed (if largely conventional). None of this matters, however; the transparency and lack of depth in this screenplay are an insurmountable problem.

White alone, in fact, develops a certain complexity, but ultimately he is an enigma. One might even be tempted to say (unfairly, no doubt) that he is not explained because he could not be easily reduced to the film’s simplistic conceptions of “good” and “evil” like every other character. Harvey, on the other hand, is a saint. This not only makes him rather uninteresting, but is doubtless a disservice to the reality of the living, breathing, imperfect man Milk actually was. He encounters hardship in the film, certainly, but somehow they hardly register. He seems so extraordinary that his accomplishments aren’t terribly surprising.

The tale’s framing device is a particularly poor one. Harvey tells his own story, via tape recorder. This allows for voice-overs to explain what is going on and create bridges between scenes when a lot of time has passed. What I never quite understood was why Harvey was sitting alone in his kitchen, shortly before his death, dictating his life story into a microphone. It’s almost as though he expects to be killed (which doesn’t make any sense). Because this is a biopic, are we expected to believe that he actually did this? Surely not. The device is lazy and confusing. I say that Harvey tells his life story, but this isn’t entirely true. One might expect to hear more about where he came from and what made him the man he became. His life seems to begin on his 40th birthday, and he emerges out of nowhere to become the political savior of San Francisco’s gay community. This only adds to the dull hagiographic feel of the movie.

Milk draws a very hard, extreme line down one side of a volatile and complex issue, and then demands that its characters and its audience choose a side. If they, and we, choose the right side, we become brave and heroic individuals, standing on principle for what is right. If we choose incorrectly, we are everything that is bad and wrong in America today. Whether or not I agree with the ideology in play here (and I am far from unsympathetic to it), this sort of high-handed invective is a major turn-off, and certainly no way to win hearts and minds. No amount of high-brow production standards or armload of Oscar nominations is going to change that.

~ by Jared on January 31, 2009.

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