Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cinema 2009: "Milk" biopic transcends gay issues

Gays are in your face from the initial scenes of "Milk" to the ill-conceived apotheosis at its conclusion, and it is not something your average hetero moviegoer is necessarily comfortable watching.

But "Milk," the biopic of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California politics, who was assassinated at Frisco city hall in 1978, builds a compelling narrative that ultimately succeeds in transcending the gay rights issue. The movie evinces a street vitality and down-to-earth production values that push past its weaker moments, especially some contrived, artsy images, including a shallow operatic vision that culminates an otherwise honest treatment of Milk's violent demise.

Sean Penn won the Best Actor Oscar for his intense and layered portrayal of Harvey Milk. Penn achieves a tour de force with his depiction of a savvy politico with a lust for life and a no fear 'tude. The movie succeeds because Penn concentrates throughout on the quintessentially human aspects of the role, warts and all. His Harvey Milk is a tribute to the human spirit, all the more endearing for the weaknesses of the man it reveals.

The film of course also owes its success to the nature of the man whose life it chronicles. Milk is shown to evolve into a determined sort who knew he could change the world by changing his immediate neighborhood.

The movie begins in the early 1970s with Milk on his 40th birthday cruising for a date in the New York City subway, an apt image for the underground lifestyle forced upon the closeted gays by the repressive corporate and institutional culture of that era.

Soon thereafter Milk moves to San Francisco and comes out of the closet. He also comes out of his civic shell, gradually emerging as a political force.

Domestic bliss is the price of professional success for Milk, just as it is with so many, more conventional, Hollywood heroes.

By dint of his perseverance, Milk goes from being the guy people threaten to call the police on, to an ally of the mayor and the man the cops rely on to defuse potential riots. At one point, Milk realizes his political success depends on being able to convince the "normal majority" to give a damn about the minority he represents. By this point in the film, Penn has done just that for the audience through his compassionate portrayal of the man. Milk's private escapades are a strong leitmotif but are handled with such forthrightness by Penn and director Gus Van Zant, that they eventually fade in significance as Milk's public accomplishments gain momentum.

While the movie does not seem to romanticize the gay lifestyle, it does stress a gamut of gay martyrdom that spans public scorn to partners prone to hysterics, hissy fits, and suicide.

But Penn makes us believers in Milk's crusade even as we might wince at the character's romantic romps. Most of the love scenes, however, are set up as outrageously silly, as if they were a form of comic relief. One is left to wonder if Van Zant is trying to soften any sinister visions the heterosexual majority might harbor when it comes to the consummation of gay love.

In a supporting role, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, Josh Brolin plays to perfection Dan White, the Irish Catholic ex-cop elected city supervisor and a colleague of Milk's. White is made to look like a beefy schoolboy scared by the first day of class. He wears suit jackets one size too small, with big knotted ties choking his neck. So dressed, White visually bursts with repressed issues. When White's demons finally take over, the man's utter vulnerability is conveyed by showing him alone in his darkened living room, squirming on the couch in only his underwear, peeking through the blinds. The scene gives us a haunting tableau of a total breakdown.

The final candlelight march is a powerful image but falls short of eliciting the emotional response a movie like "Milk" ultimately strives to achieve, despite its success at the most personal level, thanks to the brilliant work of Sean Penn.

Much more inspiring is the final series of actual photos of the persons played by the actors. While the abstract image of 30,000 anonymous marchers is too conventional a coda, those individual faces give the audience a hopeful send-off: to leave knowing the courage and humanity brought to life on the screen was not just Hollywood hype but was instead, at one time, some 500 miles north of those motion picture studios, a red-blooded reality.

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