One of my very favorite films released in early 2008 was Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park. It was a brilliant laconic meditation on a young man's ennui and the accidental murder in which he finds himself embroiled. Its story, also, in my opinion, knowing where Van Sant usually comes from in regard to his own sexuality, is a visual metaphor for the boy's emerging confusion with his own sexual identity. This, of course, can be debated, but that very act of inspiring argument on what the film really means is an invigorating result of such a beautifully realized piece of cinema. The same can not be said for Mr. Van Sant's Academy Award winning bio film Milk.
The story of Harvey Milk and his journey from closeted gay man to avid political activist for homosexual rights in 1970s San Francisco is brought to the screen in a very straight matter of fact Hollywood style manner. It's very forth right telling is as dry and mannerly as 1937's Academy Award winning The Life of Emile Zola, except with male kissing, of course. It is a complete by the book telling of a famous person's life with all the trappings of relationship problems, failure and success, inspiring speechifying, characters that are changed by the central character, and the eventual martyr's death. These are the ingredients poured into the generic Hollywood mold of the bio film. The only exception to this rule is the central figure and subject of the film; a subject never handled in those old style constructions, that being a historical character who was a homosexual. Van Sant makes sure we get over this hurdle (if anyone should have a bias about it) in the first scenes of male intimacy. The film, then, follows its cliche mannered steps to its sad, but inspirational conclusion.
This is not to say that the story of Harvey Milk and his rise to prominence as America's first openly gay politician is not interesting and educational in its significance to the sensational breakthrough it provided for gay rights in America. Van Sant is a visually interesting director. He is able to integrate newsreel footage and fictive recreation in beautiful swoops of fluidity and makes one feel the 70s in every frame. Some of his shots were truly wonderful. The use a metal whistle to reflect a scene between Milk and a policeman after a man is beaten to death, in the Castro section of San Fransisco, is beautiful to see; a Hitchcock touch reminiscent of the murder reflected in the fallen eyeglasses in Strangers on a Train ... horror or its aftermath presented in an imaginative symbol of separateness. A call out for support from other gay men in the area for aid in a rally is done in the style of the teenage phone call scene in Bye Bye Birdie; blossoming squares of characters responding to the call in colorful backgrounds replicated many times over around the central caller. A television plays in a character's home while Harvey Milk is interviewed on the screen; his head huge and dominating as Josh Brolin as Dan White watches; his own head reflected in the corner of the screen symbolizing his feeling of inadequacy and impotence as Milk's popularity increases and his feeling of worth decreases. Great directorial signatures.
The acting of all the participants is brilliant and engaging. Sean Penn was deserving of his Oscar win and he, again, immerses himself into a role and becomes almost unrecognizable. His performance radiates great joy and a lust for life that we don't usually associate with his usual characterizations. It would be wonderful to see him in a comedy role. James Franco, Josh Brolin and several supporting characters such as Denis O'Hare as the sermonizing Christian politician who becomes Milk's major nemesis are all superlative. The most amazing transformation, for me, was the job performed by Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones,a young hustler that becomes Milk's most ardent supporter and comrade in activism. Hirsch's ability to become this character of effeminate tics and mannerisms, with his curly mop and large framed aviator eyeglasses was hard to grasp after seeing him in Into the Wild and Speed Racer. He is truly a talented young actor. Penn's greatness in becoming the very person we see is expected. Hirsch's transformation was happily unexpected.
The acting and directing is above par as stated, so why the feeling of blandness after watching? The explanation is the script by Dustin Lance Black. Ironically, this script won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Its winning of this award can be explained, perhaps, to its message and timely production at this time in gay rights history; the current battle over same sex marriage proposals. In its construction the script is very paint by numbers and not very clear on why Harvey Milk becomes what he becomes. We see his beginnings in New York as a closeted "suit", his meeting of his soul mate and their transfer to San Francisco. Milk's activism raises its head in his new environs and he becomes very political in support of gay rights and strives to end the brutality and persecution of the gay denizens of the Castro district. The total immersion of Milk into the politics of community activism and eventual elected status as a city supervisor is depicted clearly, but Milk's passion in his motivations never becomes clear to me; suddenly he is so active and strident. At times, his political aspirations and dealings to get "what he wants" seem unappealing in a movie that clearly wants you to love it's central figure.
I fault Black for the blatant movie moments that reek of 1940s bio pics. Milk is called by a boy in the Midwest who asks for his help in escaping from his homophobic parents. After Milk tells him to just get on a bus and go, the camera pans back to show he is in a wheelchair; syrup poured over syrup. This made me cringe. I expect this from an old black and white feature, but not today ... and not from Van Sant. The idea that this boy calls and connects to Milk and later calls again, some time later, in a happier place due to Milk's advice, is quite hard to swallow. Another gulp is felt when Milk goes to a very bloody passionate opera depicting assassination the night before his own end. It seemed so cinema-sculpted and was made more so by his dying last look at the same opera house, through a window, before he expires into a bloody heap much like the dead operatic character. The film just felt very tepid and forced in its emotions and I never felt connected to these characters. Of course, I knew the story of Harvey Milk before I sat down to watch this film, but, even so, stories we know can be formed into new and exciting presentations and made more interesting when told over and over again. It didn't seem as adult as it should have, not daring for its subject manner. It felt safe, cliche and stale; only saved by its acting charms and flair of visual direction.