Lost in the Movies: Milk


A thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining biopic, Milk is a minor success - not a great film, but a very good one. When it opened with Sean Penn, as the trailblazing gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, at a cluttered kitchen table, theatrically clearing his throat and speaking with mannered precision into a small tape recorder, I winced. Penn is obviously an extremely skilled actor, but one who often slips out of the director's grasp. He's prone to grandstanding, mannerisms, and overinflated intensity, so that even when his performance is superficially nuanced and subtle, he's still overbearing. Perhaps this scene was shot first, or perhaps Penn overburdened it with pathos because it's a framing device; either way, it's not at all indicative of the rest of his performance, in which the requisite emotions and style and intelligence of the portrayal belong to the character, not the actor.

The following scene finds Harvey Milk in a New York subway stairwell, where he gently flirts with hippie Scott Smith (James Franco), quietly pirouetting from the soft power of an experienced elder to the bashful timidity of a diminutive, mild-mannered square, finding what works to win over the confident young man. It works, and soon he's in bed with Smith, celebrating his 40th birthday with a groan: "I've never done one thing I'm proud of in forty years." Of course, the rest of the movie will document his remaining eight years, a whirlwind rise to the top of the gay community, but there's something intriguing in this early Harvey, a man who has entered over the threshold of middle age ready to start anew. Though he's not entirely comfortable in his own skin, his painful and confused experiences up till now have given him the base upon which to build his future self-confidence, a self-confidence that will spread to his friends and eventually an entire group of people. It's possible that Harvey Milk would not have been Harvey Milk had he been born in 1950 instead of 1930, if he hadn't worked through decades of denial and submergence before finding his niche.

There has been some criticism of Milk for picking up the ball in 1970, instead of showing us how Harvey's character developed throughout his youth. I emphatically disagree. Much of Milk's power resides in its focus; not just that of its story, which charts Harvey's rise in politics with a doggedness that mirrors its protagonist's, but of director Gus Van Sant's camera and editing shears as well. That first encounter in the subway is shot entirely in close-ups, with no bustling passerby to distract us from the nascent couple's hesitant rendezvous. Later, their post-coital conversation also unfolds in close-up, and though Van Sant will widen the cinematographic scope as Harvey finds a community and a cause, he will never really abandon this desire to encircle and enclose, allowing the audience to share Harvey's warm embrace of his own immediate experience.

Penn, heterosexual like most of the other primary actors, throws himself into the role completely and there is a palpable warmth and romance to his relationship with Smith and to his interactions with friends like Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), whom he repeatedly refers to as "adorable." However, other than Harvey's passionate and emotional trysts with later lover Jack Lira (Diego Luna), director Gus Van Sant tends to eschew eroticism. This has the odd effect of defining the onscreen gay community through their mannerisms, solidarity with one another, and passionate opposition to oppression, rather than by the sexuality which is the very root of their marginalized identity. (Strangely enough, Brokeback Mountain - ostensibly an attempt to portray an old-fashioned romance but with a gay couple, had the opposite problem, relying too much on sex scenes to establish the intimacy between its protagonists).

At any rate, Van Sant's avoidance of an erotic texture (while embracing a romantic, swoony, warm one) universalizes the tale of Harvey's struggle, and the picture itself becomes a political venture: an attempt to place gay rights alongside the rights of blacks and females in the pantheon of cinematic struggles, and to put Harvey Milk alongside past civil rights leaders as a prophet worthy of biopictorial veneration - another figure left out of America's promise, who asserted his right to be part of that larger community. I particularly liked the way that Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black establish Harvey Milk as a leader. Instead of appearing merely as a spokesman, a figure who can pass between the world of the (mostly younger) gay community and the straight community that he lived in, closeted, for so many years, Harvey Milk is shown in close personal interaction with his friends, at neighborhood block parties, flirting and laughing and offering encouragement to those around him - a leader within his community, not just of it.

Here the political most definitely stems from the personal, and because we've seen Harvey so comfortable in the Castro Street scene, his rise as a leader seems marvellously non-ideological, a mere natural extension of personal struggles; he's the ultimate Capraesque citizen-politician. Even when cutting backroom deals and threatening leaders with his political clout, Harvey Milk manages to retain the patina of idealism. Mayor Muskoney tells him he sounds like Mayor Daley or Boss Tweed but Harvey relishes the comparison: "A gay Boss Tweed; I like it!" In a more plaintive tone, he corrects drunken city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) when he rambles about Harvey's "cause"; "It's not a cause, Dan. This is our lives."

Of course (I say "of course" but if for some reason you want to see this historical reenactment without spoilers, read no further) it's Dan White who will end Harvey's life - and that of the mayor - with a Twinkie-powered bullet (at least if you believe White's lawyer, who successfully convinced a jury that too many candy bars had driven his client to temporary - and lethal - insanity). Van Sant ultimately plays the assassination as the senseless action of an unhinged individual rather than a hate crime, a verdict which many historical analyses seem to bear out. However, he also hints that White was a closeted homosexual (a subtext which Ebert overamplifies in his own review, but which is nonetheless an unmistakable suggestion.)

Yet whether or not White is, as Harvey speculates, "one of us" he is definitely a weird kind of outsider, which explains his brief and mysterious connection with Harvey Milk ("I find him intriguing," Harvey explains when his staff asks what he sees in the conservative Catholic ex-cop). As played by Brolin in a surprisingly and impressively sympathetic portrayal, he's a kind of Travis Bickle and weirdly, the obverse of Harvey Milk. That is to say he too heads up a contingent vying for power in the up-for-grabs late 70s San Francisco, albeit a waning contingent: white, working-class social conservatives, squares, the ultimate straights. Yet Harvey is fully embedded in his community, while White floats atop his but does not seem deeply rooted; he wanders restlessly through his own child's christening like a lost soul, and offscreen reports tell us he was not well-liked by his own "people." So there we have these two figures, one part of a marginalized group but with many friends within that group, the other part of the dominant group but apparently friendless and rootless. Harvey's on his way up and Dan White's on his way down, and it's Harvey's misfortune that White reaches out to grab him in the process of his descent.

Nonetheless, posterity records the Harvey Milks as history's victors, even if their struggle remains unfinished. Van Sant's gift to us is to give us the portrait of a man, not a saint; a friend, not just a leader; and Penn's gift is to embody this person with a generosity of spirit that sends us out of the theater with a warm glow. No, Milk is not a great movie but it is well-done, enthusiastically enacted, and ultimately, despite its violent ending, happy. As I hinted at before, it's the undercurrent of sadness, repression, and denial which allows this joy to flourish; Harvey's 40 years in the wilderness were what made his 8 years in the sunshine possible, and those lost years retain all the more malevolent pull for being unseen - though they are occasionally suggested by proxy.

At one moment, as a rally is building outside, Harvey receives a phone call from a complete stranger - a physically crippled teenager whose parents, having discovered his homosexuality, are going to hospitalize him the next day; right now, he's contemplating suicide. He hangs up before Harvey can comfort him, but calls back a year later to reveal that he ended up in L.A. and is now safe and happy. This follow-up call is a dramatic mistake; it seems too pat and contrived, even if the impulse which motivates it is generous. But perhaps that boy, alongside the fleeting wisps of Harvey's years in the closet, should have remained like the proverbial ghost on our shoulder, whispering in our ear the melancholy truths which undergird celebration and affirmation and, indeed, make them possible.


Fox said...


Though, as we've already established, we disagree overall on this movie, I think this is the best review of Milk I've read thus far. (Truly, I appreciate your take and Jason Bellamy's take better than any critics I've read via Metacritic.)

And though I've talked this movie over a lot, but you brought up something I hadn't really thought on yet. And that is the implication that Dan White is gay.

I don't know much about the life of Dan White, so I'm unsure if that notion was created by Lance Black and Van Sant for the movie, OR, if there really was suspicion that Dan White was gay.

So, I'm wondering now why Van Sant had Emile Hirsch say "Is it me, or is he cute?", b/c it seems to undercut Sean Penn's more empathetic comment of "I find him intriguing". That right there is, to me, an example of what is wrong with Van Sant's filmmaking. He steps all over himself... and often.

Also, what did you think of Josh Brolin looking out his window in his underwear the day of the murder? Was that also some kind of "I'm trapped inside these walls of straight suburbia" implication? Personally, I found that shot to be odd. It was framed in kind of a coyly sexual way, I think.

Lastly, I think you make a good insight on Penn's shift in performance from scene one to the rest of the movie. Though, I wasn't a fan of his performance, it IS more nuanced in scenes outside of that kitchen table.

Anyway... good stuff!

Joel Bocko said...

Fox, thanks for your compliments -for what it's worth, I appreciated your review a lot as well, and so far the most insightful reviews I've read have been in the blogosphere, though the back-and-forth comments help too (something you don't really see with a mainstream review).

As for Dan White, my problem with the "gay" theory is that it's a little glib. Hey, maybe it's true (and I think I read that the real Harvey suspected as much - though this may just have been a reviewer taking the movie at its word). But it annoys me how "outsiders" are made to fit into little subgroups. What if White was just an oddball who was an outsider because he DIDN'T fit into any group, even if he appeared to? I find that, and the resultantly weird and complicated relationship to Harvey, to be much more intriguing than the rather pat, "Oh, he's a closet homo, case closed" response.

Jason Bellamy said...

Great review. Yes, we see the film similarly. A few things ...

On the hunch that White was gay: I heard/read interviews with the screenwriter and with one of Harvey's friends noting that Harvey did at least float the notion a few times. But neither man had a feel for how much Harvey believed that to be the case. The screenwriter noted on NPR that he hoped it was left open in the film -- like a possibility and not a statement of fact. I think he succeeds there. Fox might disagree.

As for the portrayals of sexuality: I don't see anything "odd" with defining the gay community through things other than visual eroticism. That makes perfect sense, actually. For example, I have a handful of gay friends and it's easy to recognize their membership in the gay community -- and I've never watched any of them having sex. In some cases, I've never seen them so much as lay a hand on another gay person. In other words, yes, their sex practices define them in the sense that those opposing homosexual unions whip out the procreation card. But the sex itself is no more important to the community than to any heterosexual union/community. It is about the relationships.

In "Brokeback Mountain" you're seeing something different: men coming to terms with their homosexuality. In that case, if the men could remove the sex, thy could say they're just good friends. Their sex is the smoking gun, so to speak, that makes it clear it's something more. In "Milk," there's no such discovery. These men are gay and know it and live it.

When all is said and done, "Milk" could wind up in my top 5 films of the year. But that says more about the year in film than the film itself. Last year it probably would have just made my top 20.

Joel Bocko said...

On White:

Yes, it was left a "suggestion" onscreen, but I got the sense we were at least somewhat prodded to believe in it. Both because the film was generally not so ambiguous (it was usually in the habit of telling us, albeit gently, what it wanted us to believe) and because, as Fox notes, there were more clues than just Harvey's statement. However, I am glad they left the question open to the extent they did.

On sexuality:

I'd put it this way - sexuality is to the gay community what skin color is to the black community. Neither one comprises everything the community is about, but it provides the essential fulcrum which creates the community in the first place. So it did feel like something was missing - not that we needed a sex scene (and obviously Fox felt like there was already too much sex in the film, so opinions vary), but that eroticism was surprisingly absent. So while I hear what you're saying, and generally agree, I think my point still stands.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with Fox in that this is the finest review of MILK I have read on the illustrious blogs I frequent. It's extraodinarily attentive to all the disperate elements that make this a biopic worthy of acute dissection. You are a fabulous writer, my friend.
I am still debating how I will rank MILK at the end of the year, as I await the likes of BENJAMIN BUTTON, WALTZ WITH BASHIR, CHE, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and the film I am seeing tonite, THE WRESTLER. I thought it was superlative when I first saw it, then it slightly declined in retrospect, then after I saw it a second time (earlier this week with Allan Fish, who is here for a few weeks from the UK) I reinstated my original position. It may make the Top 10, but the competition is fierce.
The film, as you note may have been better served with added depth into Milk's acendancy on the gay scene and a more perceptive look at his earlier years. Butg the truth is that's he's really a symbol of a movement, more than he is a flesh-and-blood person, despite Van Sant's predictably no-holds-barred examination of his romantic and sex life.
I say you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. A stronger examination of him in a personal sense may well have been at the expense of the consideration of him in the context of the turbulent era he helped to ignite. The performances were outstanding, but Penn was singular, delivering one of the year's best performances. Let's see what Rourke does tonite, and then there is Richard Jenkins, who for me was tops for THE VISITOR.

Joel Bocko said...

Sam, thanks for the compliments - as for the film, it may or may not make a top ten, if I ever see enough of these films to create one. I am especially intrigued by The Wrestler; I was a big Darron Aronfsky fan at one point, mostly on the basis of Requiem for a Dream, soured on him a bit, but am ready to reevaluate. And Mickey Rourke was the only thing I really liked about Sin City (yes, it looked fantastic but the slick aesthetic also kind of added to the coldness which I found to be the picture's trademark).

Anonymous said...

Movie Man: I bet you "soured" on him for THE FOUNTAIN, right? Ironically, that is the film of his that really hit a home run, but I know it sharply devided the critical ranks, with soem declaring it a masterpiece, while others deemed it "unwatchable." THE FOUNTAIN is the precise kind of film that makes 'taste' a definitive concern in evaluation.
As it turns out I thought highly of THE WRESTLER and Rourke was stupendous. I will rate it with 4/5 in an upcoming review, but I suspect the film will fall short of a top ten list. At least that's the way I feel today! LOL!

Joel Bocko said...

Sam, it was a twofer. Requiem, which at one point I considered one of my 100 favorite films, began to seem a bit forced, heavy-handed and over-inflated (though it's definitely a piece of virtuoso filmmaking). And yes, The Fountain seemed ludicrous to me, wanting us to care about a romance that it gave us no reason to care about. But it certainly does have its admirers, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Indeed it does. It was my #1 film of 2006.

Search This Blog