Saturday, 16 April 2011

Milk

43. Milk (2008)
Dir: Gus Van Sant


In 2005, one of the most infamous Oscar controversies occured when Paul Haggis's limp 'Crash' (2004) beat clear favourite 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005) to the Best Picture award. The controversy stemmed from the fact that 'Brokeback Mountain' was a prominently gay-themed film which lead to many critics suggesting homophobia played a significant part in its denial of the year's biggest award. This view was certainly not without evidence. Old-school assholes Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis lead a shockingly homophobic attack on the film, despite stating that they refused to watch it. Borgnine's argument against 'Brokeback Mountain' seemed to be based mainly on his perception that John Wayne would have hated it (as if that would have been a bad thing!) while across the country, Conservative pundits spouted the usual twaddle about undermining of family values. Shock-jocks and talk-show hosts tried their damndest to turn the film into a joke, with "hilarious" retitlings like 'Fudgepack Mountain'.

Although it thrust the homophobia of many crusty old Academy members into the spotlight, the 'Brokeback Mountain' furore was hardly unprecedented. Although the Oscars has often been portrayed as an open-minded liberal event, gay-themed films have always struggled to get the major recognition of the more coveted awards. For example, despite much acclaim and commercial success that made it one of the most talked about films of its year, 'Philadelphia' (1993) was not included in the 1993 nominees for Best Picture. When 'Brokeback Mountain' was snubbed, the voters also managed to ignore another critically acclaimed, gay-themed nominee, 'Capote' (2005) as they clamoured to honour the clumsily executed race-issues movie in a misguided attempt to soothe their wounded delusions of progressiveness.

Now, I'm not saying that there is a complex conspiracy to prevent queer cinema from major recognition (I must admit I didn't really like 'Philadelphia' and, in the 'Brokeback Mountain'/'Capote' year, my vote would have gone to 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (2005)). But there is an undoubted discomfort amongst the Academy when it comes to following through on their initial nominations of these films. Flash forward three years to 2008 and the 81st Academy Awards ceremony. The year's big event movie and favourite to walk away with Best Picture is Danny Boyle's suprise hit 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008). However, 'Brokeback Mountain' had taught us that the sure-thing does not always live up to that title and this year there is a strong contender to snatch the prize waiting in the wings: Gus Van Sant's 'Milk' (2008), an exceptional biopic about the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay...... And the award goes to 'Slumdog Millionaire'!

OK, I'll drop the cynicism now. 'Milk's loss to 'Slumdog Millionaire' was likely due to the huge impact of that film at the time and there was subsequently no controversy over the issue (the greater controversy that year being the Academy's refusal to nominate Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight' (2008) for Best Picture, its rightful place taken by the creaky dirge 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (2008)). As a matter of personal opinion, however, I think 'Milk' was the more deserving candidate. While still a fine film, I consider 'Slumdog Millionaire' more of a superficial thrill that seems far better the first time round than it is on reflection. 'Milk' is a beautifully realised encapsulation of a true story that gets richer with every watch, unlike the flashy, music-themed biopics that became Oscar staples at around the same time.

'Milk' tells the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), America's first openly-gay elected public official. Beginning on his fortieth birthday when he is still a closeted businessman, the film follows Milk's move to an area in San Francisco which is rapidly evolving into a gay neighbourhood. The combination of opposition from homophobic residents and the strength that the support of people who share his sexuality gives him, Milk becomes a political activist. From here, the film follows Milk's many campaigns and his eventual success at being elected onto the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Here, he forges a complex, awkward working relationship with conservative supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a relationship that will ultimately lead to the assassination of both Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).

Gus Van Sant is one of the most unusual directors of recent times. Although his output is frustratingly hit-and-miss, one can't help but applaud the diversity and originality of his work. His films range from excellent indie efforts ('Drugstore Cowboy' (1989)) and conventional but highly intelligent mainstream successess ('Good Will Hunting' (1997)) to ambitious but rather flat experiments in economy of plot ('Elephant' (2003), 'Last Days' (2005)) and even a downright awful remake ('Psycho' (1998)). Whatever you think of him as a filmmaker, you can't fault Van Sant's dedication to diversity. As an openly gay man himself, 'Milk' was a project that had been very close to Van Sant's heart for a long time. Taking much influence from the Oscar-winning documentary 'The Times of Harvey Milk' (1984) (which he acknowledges in the credits of 'Milk'), Van Sant had been considering scripts for the project since the early 90s. Gay writer Dustin Lance Black's screenplay provided him with the perfect material to create one of his intermittent mainstream gems and, between them, the writer and director have such a keen understanding of the issues involved that 'Milk' could hardly have failed.

It's extremely fortunate that Van Sant opted to make 'Milk' a prestige project and not one of his oddball curiositys like 'Gerry' (2002). The subject is one that requires a mainstream appeal if it is to do anything but preach to the converted and 'Milk' has all the polish and coherence of the most accessible cinema. However, Van Sant is also able to incorporate his own unique and varied style into the film to elevate it far above the workmanlike. He deftly incorporates real news footage of the 60s and 70s to paint a vivid picture of the time and give increased insight into the major events in Harvey Milk's life. Rather than keep Milk's assassination as a cheap climactic secret, the film opens with California senator Dianne Feinstein's actual announcement of the double murder to the press. This sets up Dustin Lance Black's excellent conceit of having the film narrated by Harvey himself, tape recording a personal memoir to be played in the event of his assassination.

A very important part of 'Milk's success as a film rested on finding the right actor to play the pivotal role. Although political and social considerations play a strong part in the narrative, 'Milk' is ultimately very much Harvey Milk's own story, never leaving his side as we follow both his career and his personal life; his growth from a nervous, closeted forty year old to a vibrant, passionate activist and finally a man in a genuine position of power. Wisely, then, Van Sant went to one of the finest actors of his generation, Sean Penn. Penn, in his second Best Actor Oscar-winning performance, is exquisite. He is forceful and persistent in his scenes as a political force but, crucially, he taps into the constantly visible human side of Harvey Milk, never allowing any kind of public persona to overwhelm his personality. The scene in which he is assassinated is one of the most beautifully understated, effortlessly heart-rending bits of acting and staging I've ever seen. Seeing the gun intended for him, he whimpers "no" and involuntarily raises a futile hand in an attempt to protect himself. It highlights the human frailty and fear that belies Milk's remarkable drive and ambition to fight for what's right. Penn ensures we never forget that these uncertainties are present in the character, so this final moment is devastatingly realistic and effective.

The supporting cast is never less than good, if somewhat overshadowed by Penn's towering performance. This was always likely to be the case given the constant focus on 'Milk's titular character, however, and the rest of the cast do an admirable job. Josh Brolin gives a solid turn as the awkward, ever-more unstable Dan White and his drunken ramblings in one scene bag the film's biggest laugh. Emile Hirsch is a tad irritating and uneven as Harvey's bitchy young protege Cleve Jones but the other actors portraying Milk's gay entourage do a fine job, particularly Joseph Cross and, in the film's other standout performance, James Franco as the love of Harvey's life, Scott Smith. With a script written by a gay writer and with a gay director at the helm, 'Milk' also thankfully sidesteps the cinematic cliche of the shrieking queen, which the majority of straight directors would likely have included for a few cheap, questionable laughs.

'Milk' unfurls its story with pace and vitality, remaining constantly engaging throughout. It hits all the right buttons to inspire anger at the injustices of prejudice and then rewards us with the thwarting of those who would use religion and so-called family values as a way to ensure that inequality goes on thriving. Harvey Milk's story is one that has long deserved to be told and Van Sant's film does a grand job of raising awareness of this great man and all he stood for. I'm sure that, eventually, a gay-themed film will win the Best Picture Oscar but it's a great shame that this extremely worthy contender didn't become the first film to clinch that honour.

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