Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gus Van Sant's "Milk"

Milk is Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official who was assassinated in 1978 by fellow San Francisco supervisor, Dan White. A well-made biopic, the film does not try to go beyond the conventions of the genre. At 128 minutes, it also feels on the long side. 

Part of the problem is that the Harvey Milk character is not fully fleshed out, and so he appears in the film something of a saint. There are allusions to shadows--he has not come out to his own parents, he likes to help vulnerable young men--but they remain oblique to the main action. The struggle between social activism and personal losses--one lover leaves him, another lover hangs himself--is depicted, but in dramatically predictable manner. 

The real conflict in the film takes place between the Castro Street activists and the bigoted Christian campaigners, Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare), over Prop 6 that sought to fire gay teachers and their supporters. But since the homophobes are always one-dimensional, the fight very quickly becomes one between good and evil, with the expected success, followed by the expected tragedy. 

The acting is strong all-round, but not brilliant. Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk. Emile Hirsch is a credible Cleve Jones. Josh Brolin brings some genuine emotion to the tormented Dan White. James Franco, who plays Milk's first lover, Scott Smith, is drool-worthy. 

The film splices seamlessly old footage, of the police brutality, the TV appearances of Anita Bryant, the marches. Most genuinely moving is the opening sequence showing a police raid of a gay bar. The gay customers shield their faces, not just from police batons, but also from the cameras. The humiliation brought a lump to my throat. 

Despite my reservations about the film, I really hope it travels to and plays in Singapore. It is a film that gives courage. 

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