Friday, January 2, 2009

You Gotta Give 'Em Hope

Milk is a disappointingly conventional biopic about a gloriously unconventional man. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), based in San Francisco, crusaded tirelessly for gay rights and became the first openly gay public official (City Supervisor) in the late 70s. Harvey Milk is an inspiration, and his story blew me away. The film itself is uninspired. Milk could have been great, and it's a tragedy that it's not.

Milk is basically a series of vignettes highlighting different periods of Harvey's life during the 70s - numerous failed attempts to win public office, romantic relationships with men, his eventual triumph, and the shocking and tragic events that followed it. The film never flows together in any cohesive way. There's an ongoing narration by Penn (Harvey's cryptic tell-all into a microphone at his kitchen table) that appears and disappears at random. The structure of the film is so disjointed that I think it could have been disastrous without the heavyweight acting of the ensemble. Milk jumps around so much that the result, narratively, seems surface. There should have been less quantity and more quality.

Most of this is the fault of Dustin Lance Black's painfully amateurish, formulaic, and repetitious script. He was in way over his head on this project, which was his first screenplay. He will get an Oscar nomination, but he won't deserve it. The script is a mess. The subplot involving one of Harvey's two main lovers, Jack Lira (Diego Luna), is annoying and superfluous. Jack is selfish and terrible for Harvey, but Harvey just can't resist him. This storyline screams, "Look, Harvey has flaws and weaknesses!" It's a pitiful attempt to add more dimensions to the character. We don't need to be TOLD that; Sean Penn makes us feel and believe that Harvey is fully human, someone who makes mistakes and suffers from self-doubt as much as he triumphs and perseveres. He is not meant to be a messiah (although I think the film leans that way at times). There's the random introduction of some random kid in a wheelchair calling Harvey as he's about to commit suicide. Things happen too conveniently (life-summation phone calls before pivotal plot moments, one boyfriend exiting and another entering almost instantaneously, a terrible, cliché oversymbolization of opera), the film lingers too long, and it was even a bit boring here and there. It's frustrating, because Harvey Milk and all the actors who are working their method butts off deserve a better screenplay.

It's interesting to see Gus Van Sant going the mainstream, traditionally narrative route. This is a total departure from mood outings like Paranoid Park (and thankfully light years away from the atrocious Psycho remake - shudder). I'm happy that he's getting such widespread recognition. His directing is quite good, and the story is obviously coming from a very personal place. I believe he did the best job possible with the script he had, but I think he was more concerned with the message than the structure. Pity, because the message would have been stronger if the film had been stronger. Milk is a sprawling epic of sorts, and Van Sant manages to hold it all together. It's a lot to keep under control, and I admire his efforts and his passion for the project. I've certainly come a long way from despising him for desecrating Alfred Hitchcock.

None of the aesthetics of the film are particularly noteworthy. The film has a nice grainy 70s-ish look to it (cinematography by Harris Savides) and is interspersed with some stunning real footage from the past. Only Danny Elfman's brilliant score really stands out. He just keeps on proving that he's one of the best composers we've ever had, and one of the most versatile. There's an operatic, powerfully emotional, and swooningly gorgeous quality about his layered melodies. It's a knockout. And it does precisely what a score should do, which is complement the film and elevate it to another level.

I'm not sure if Milk has THE best ensemble of the year (The Dark Knight, In Bruges, and Slumdog Millionaire come to mind), but it's definitely a top contender. Diego Luna - the poor guy - does what he can to make an annoying caricature charming. Allison Pill is fantastic as tough and cool Anne, Harvey's campaign manager and the lone female in his universe. Josh Brolin is just exploding off the radar lately, and I'm thrilled for him. He's getting a lot of acclaim for his role as Dan White, Harvey's nemesis on the supervisory committee. He's great here, bringing humor, gravity, and emotional nuance to a character who could have been a stereotypical mustache-twirling baddie (if he had a mustache, that is), but his best work this year was in W. as the titular fool. Emile Hirsch impresses me more all the time. He's equal parts hilarious and intense as Cleve Jones, a wayward teen who joins Harvey's crusade.

I don't know what happened to James Franco, but somewhere between Spider-Man 3 and now, he turned into a really amazing actor (yes, I know he apparently did good work on Freaks and Geeks, but his film career has been dismal at best). His performance in Milk is so sensitive and beautiful that it makes my heart skip a beat and a few tears come to my eyes just thinking about it. He has the most heart-melting and sincere smile and such a gentle disposition that it's no wonder Harvey is so in love with him. He plays Scott Smith, who I firmly believe was Harvey's one true love and soul mate. Franco deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination. This is his best performance to date, and I'm excited to watch him in the future. He also sort of reminds me of Heath Ledger in this film. I can't really explain it, maybe it's how he looks or just his spirit, but it's lovely.

Sean Penn is stunning as Harvey Milk. He IS Harvey Milk. It's a staggering, electrifying, profoundly touching performance. He's riveting from start to finish, whether he's giving powerful Barack Obama-style speeches or breathtakingly and exquisitely exposing Harvey's heart and soul to us. He draws us so completely into Harvey's life that script problems seem trivial compared to his awesome talent. It feels like he's speaking to only you and to the whole world at the same time, and always intimately and passionately. Honestly, I think this is the best work of Sean Penn's career. Who knew it was possible for him to get better? Well, here's the proof. He's one of this year's strongest and most deserving Oscar contenders.

With Proposition 8 still looming over us, Milk is more relevant than ever. It's a serious film about a serious issue, gay rights, that has somehow broken into the mainstream, and I think that's amazing. I'm sure his story will inspire revolutionaries of today to continue and hopefully one day finish his work. Milk has more than its share of flaws, and I can't dismiss them (I wish I could), but the acting is so transcendent, the story is so moving and inspirational, and the message of perseverance, tolerance, and hope is so potent and so essential to the advancement of society and humanity that it deserves to be seen and celebrated.

After Harvey Milk was elected City Supervisor in 1977, he asserted, "It's not my victory, it's yours and yours and yours. If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We've given them hope." And, after all, as Harvey says in the film, "Without hope, life's not worth living."

Rating: **** (out of 5)


Bill Treadway said...

You've just won the Bill Up Close Comeback of the Year award for 2009 just three days into the new year!

Seriously, though- it's GREAT to read a new review from you. It's right up there with your very best, I think.

mcarthay said...

I liked your comment on James Franco...he was such a piss-poor actor in Spiderman...he is getting better though :)

Anonymous said...

It's hard to convey just how awesome it is to see you back on the film review beat. You haven't lost a shred of your strength and insight as a writer.

I personally found Milk to be one of the most deeply moving films of the year, despite Dustin Lance Black's blatantly contrived script. I think my reaction was mainly due to the tremendous power of the acting. It's not a perfect movie by a long shot, but it's sort of the perfect movie at the perfect time. Still, most critics seem blinded to the film's flaws, and it's so great to see you refuse to follow the predictable rhythm of Oscar hype.

Great job :)

chemistchicago said...

I agree that the scriptwriting for this movie was a bit lacking, but Sean Penn's performance (and Franco's, too) was phenomenal. Without Penn, this movie would have suffered significantly.