Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)
Milk, to put it simply, is a terrific film. Gus Van Sant's take on the life of Harvey Milk (immaculately played by Sean Penn), America's first openly gay elected public official, is depicted within a perspective of acceptance rather than mere tolerance. As a result, the film, despite its largely political content, does away with the polemics of the gay rights movement and instead looks into the logic of the movement: that it is not sexual preference that divides us but our common humanity that binds us. Van Sant adeptly recreates the era through Harris Savides' stunning cinematography that is only amplified by Van Sant's use of several archived footage. Dustin Lance Black's screenplay is understandably sentimental, since Harvey Milk, with his accomplishments in giving the gay community a voice in American politics and his tragic demise, has turned into an icon. Van Sant acknowledges the screenplay's need to beatify its subject, but instead of simply subscribing to what's written, he maneuvers the film to demystify Milk, and bring him back to Earth from the pantheon of icons whose accomplished histories have dehumanized them completely. Thus, Milk is most delicious during the moments it showcases Milk in his most human, where we sense, without Van Sant announcing it, the troubles and conflicts that burden the man.
Milk opens with Harvey hooking up with a young man in one of New York City's subway stations. Scott Smith (James Franco, who makes most his timeless good looks to portray Harvey's handsome target), dodges Harvey's propositions with playful candor. Van Sant shoots the sequence with an unwavering interest to the game; his camera switching from Harvey's persistent face (his facial gestures and vocal intonation protests the lie that he is living as he is reeling in a potential catch to cap the forty years of living inside the closet) to Scott's sly smiling mug. Harvey succeeds and the two leave the subway as a couple. They make love in a hotel room; the screen purposely covered by the couple's copulating bodies, bronzed by the room's yellow lights. After their lovemaking session, the two playfully celebrate Harvey's birthday. It is this endearingly intimate portrait that jumpstarts the film, purposely reminding us that Milk, despite his contributions to the gay rights movement, is as human as any of us, that he is persistently needful of human connection yet fumbling in front of the object of his desires.
This is the balancing act Van Sant maintains throughout the film: to show the story of Harvey Milk both as an important portion of American history and as a struggle by a man forced into the limelight while battling his own personal demons. It is this balancing act that turns Milk into something more than a biopic. Milk is a fascinating portrait that transports the viewer in a situation where the gay psyche is no longer marginalized but is the mainstream. Absent the heavy-handed pedagogy that usually infests films that are burdened with big issues, Van Sant is able to tell his story with as much levity for the viewer to partially forget the issues and just get swept by the immense range of emotions (of anger, love, hate, lust, etc.) that are fluently evoked by Milk's struggle.
Dan White (Josh Brolin), who shot Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) one morning out of mixed emotions of anger and insecurity, is shown not as the representative of America's intolerant majority, but as an ostracized soul, trembling in the midst of an overwhelming change because he is fearful of being outnumbered; probably because he himself has been closeted by his culture and family. He stands in the middle of two warring factions (Anita Bryant and Senator Briggs' conservative Christian front and Milk and Mayor Moscone's gay rights defense), where he and what he represents are rendered insignificant as a result of the social and cultural movement brought about by Milk's agenda.
Van Sant, who has depicted the outcasts and the outcasted in Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005) with an intriguing mixture of sophistication and simplicity, paints Dan White's character with the same inexplicable psychology that consumes the outwardly normal characters he explored in his previous films. In fact, most of the characters in Milk are similarly explored as damaged souls, inadvertently alienated by the rapidly moving times and the rest of humanity's violent stampede to keep up. Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) has evolved from being an apathetic good-timer to Milk's campaign manager through sheer circumstance; a salvaged soul who has managed to keep up and be in the mainstream. Jack Lira (Diego Luna), Milk's beloved lover, passionately raw and perpetually jealous, is unable to keep track, in one beautifully shot sequence (Harris Savides' tracking shot of Milk's confused steps up his apartment's bathroom to find Lira dead is one of the film's strongest moments), just gives up.
Milk seems to be a departure for Van Sant, especially from the sequence of films he directed previously (from Gerry to Paranoid Park (2007), all of which can hardly be defined as commercial ventures). In fact, for a time, it seems like Van Sant has sold out again, the same way he did when he made Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000), which, in my opinion, are merely finely directed Hallmark features, not films that should be taken seriously. However, in Milk, Van Sant is able to reach a wider audience without sacrificing artistic integrity. True, the film indeed flirts with melodrama (a gay kid calls Harvey to tell him that he would commit suicide instead of being sent to a correction facility by his parents; the side story finds fruition when the same kid calls Harvey to tell him he won in Los Angeles, and that he has escaped from the clutches of his parents and into independence), yet beyond these rare missteps, Milk is an absolute triumph.