Saturday, February 21, 2009

Oscar Profile: Milk

In the eleventh hour, a mere two days before Oscar night, I finally got out to see Gus Van Sant's Milk.  I have now seen all the picture nominees and  I can safely say that Oscar got it right, sort of, with this one.  Milk is based on the true story of gay activist Harvey Milk's crusade for equal rights in San Francisco during the 1970's and deals with an important debate that is especially relevant today.  What Van Sant has made is a political film, but he is savvy enough as a filmmaker to sidestep the traps of more generic Hollywood biopics that would sermonize about their subject or pay tribute to their central character without grasping his/her flaws.  Thanks to a brilliant performance by Sean Penn, Milk is never maudlin or predictable.  We are given the full scope of his vision and ambition, but we are also provided with a context for his social failures and the bridges that he burns.  

Penn's performance is arguably the best of his career, because unlike so many of his other roles, Harvey Milk is a man of good humor even in difficult times.  Milk's sly double-entendres and ability to laugh at himself, gives Penn new room to play as an actor and I will admit that this is probably the first performance I have ever seen from him, that didn't keep me at a distance.  The other characters don't fare as well.  As the end credits roll, we are introduced to photos of the real people that the film is based on and I realized that I hadn't really gotten to know any of them.  There aren't a lot of characters to connect with in the film, because this isn't a picture about people.  This is a picture about a movement.  

The period of the film is seamlessly recreated with vintage cars, costumes and hair design.  The film is shot on ultra-grainy stock to mirror the texture of so many 70's pictures and everything in the atmosphere of the film is completely authentic.  Van Sant's story is cleverly constructed using what looks like super 8 film, actual and simulated newsreel footage, photographic stills and variable camera speeds that -- while stylized -- only add to the authenticity of the film.  Milk never feels less than authentic as a portrait of a movement that galvanized Northern California at a specific point in time and yet, despite all of these considerable virtues, the film is overlong and sometimes difficult to access.  

It may seem a strange comparison, but as I was watching it I found myself thinking about Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas -- a film that also tells a story about a group of people who changed America during a specific period in history.  GoodFellas is 20 minutes longer than Milk, but it is full of propulsive energy and we really get to know the central characters.  That doesn't happen here, despite the canny chemistry between Penn and James Franco -- his primary love interest.  Josh Brolin also delivers a powerhouse performance as the mysterious and contradictory city councilman Dan White, who becomes Harvey Milk's sole political adversary, but there is something strangely aloof about the way their rivalry plays out.

Is Milk one of the best films of the year?  I would say yes, but it is not one of my favorites.  It is accomplished, clever and provocative, but it asks you to engage with the idea of the film rather than its characters.  I point this out, not as a statement of it's flaws but rather as a declaration of where my personal preference lies when I go to see a film.  Some people respond to movies with their heads and others with their hearts.  I think the truly great films force you to do both.  Milk is hard to connect with emotionally and you may find it doesn't stick with you for that reason.