Out, Out —
In a time of fear, hope
by Jason Blair
MILK: Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Dustin Lance Black. Cinematography, Harris Savides. Music, Danny Elfman. Starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Diego Luna and Alison Pill. Focus Features, 2008. R. 128 minutes.
|Sean Penn in MILK
Everything about Harvey Milk was big, from his saucer-shaped ears to his ebullient personality, which tended toward the clownish and theatrical. Born on Long Island, he transplanted in 1972 to San Francisco where, as a gay man, he enjoyed a mixed reception. It was a time of innocence and alienation: A gay man might own a camera shop, as Milk did, but gays were routinely subject to entrapment by police and, if convicted, forced to register as sex offenders. A political career for Milk would have seemed preposterous, even hazardous, but in 1977, after failing three times, Harvey Milk — the self-described “Mayor of Castro Street” — was elected to the city Board of Supervisors. He was the first openly gay elected official in the U.S.
Then the apple dropped in Eden. Milk’s political career lasted a mere 11 months before, along with Mayor George Moscone, he was assassinated by fellow Supervisor Dan White. In development by director Gus Van Sant for 15 years, Milk is a triumph of political history and a searing period biopic. It easily is Van Sant’s best film since Good Will Hunting, driven largely by Sean Penn’s portrayal of Milk as a beaming, effervescent extrovert. (Penn hasn’t smiled this much since Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) What you don’t see in Milk is how few people took Milk seriously — or, more significantly, how many wished he would go away. Early on, the film lacks a sense of adversity; it pours too easily, as it were, but nothing spills. Confined to its cozy twin havens of the camera shop and Harvey’s apartment, Milk has a slightly trapped and sluggish feel. What it needs, in short, is a villain. To its great credit, Milk provides not one, but two.
At the time of Milk’s death, the repeal of gay rights measures was rampant. The nation was swept by a wave of legislative bigotry from which, sadly, even Eugene didn’t escape. Cresting that wave was Anita Bryant, a former orange juice spokesperson who crusaded for “family values” and who, with her bland good looks and moral superiority, bears a chilling resemblance to a recent candidate for vice president. But the Iago to Milk’s Othello will always be Dan White, a conservative who initially befriended Milk but increasingly felt the other supervisors were marginalizing him. Josh Brolin plays the milquetoast-turned-murderer Dan White — the only other significant role in Milk — as a slowly imploding fallen angel. It’s another complex performance from Brolin, who two years ago made movies nobody watched. Now, he should be considered among the best American male actors working today, a rise for which the term “meteoric” doesn’t go far enough.
The cinematography in Milk is revelatory. The sunlight itself seems rescued from the 1970s. For everything he accomplished with the period feel of Zodiac, cinematographer Harris Savides exceeds himself here, softening every frame to better blend with vintage photographs and video. It works to perfection, as does the score by Danny Elfman, who like Savides should be nominated for an Academy Award. Nowhere do these elements find more perfect expression than during the candlelight march the night Milk was murdered, a massive expression of grief whose eloquence Van Sant captures to virtuosic effect.
It should be said that the success of Milk is due in part to The Times of Harvey Milk, the Oscar-winning documentary that Van Sant uses as a template. (If you want more Milk, rent the doc.) But Milk exceeds its source material. If screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, so as not to dilute his message, neglects to mention the other historic board supervisors — including its first elected Chinese and first female African-American members, all presided over by Diane Feinstein — then so be it. And if Ronald Reagan doesn’t get the credit he deserves for, even more than Jimmy Carter, turning the tide against Proposition 6 — again, so be it. I say this because Black gets so much right. With a few short strokes, Milk evokes the spirit of Mayor George Moscone, a man of great decency and wisdom who so often goes unremarked. It was Moscone, not Milk, who was White’s primary target. Both men knew the peril of public office, and both deserve the fitting tribute that is Milk.
Milk opens Friday, Dec. 12, at the Bijou.