December 11, 2008 by Zack
Biopics are a funny thing. Sometimes they work, and when they do, they often feel like flashes in a pan and rarely stay in your memory bank. I wondered why I have forgotten most of even recent pictures that were well done, such as “Ray” and “Walk the Line”, and I think I understand why. When I watched both of those movies, all it made me want to do was listen to their music. Unfortunately it’s just not possible to give a life story of someone so dynamic and powerful only a two or two and a half hour snapshot.
“Milk” is the latest in this genre, and again, it is a very well made picture. It actually has stuck with me longer than the other two biopics I just mentioned, in fact. I was impressed that Gus Van Sant could get out of the doldrums of “Elephant” and rediscover his masterful director abilities that he displayed in “Good Will Hunting” and “My Own Private Idaho”. I was also immensely impressed with Sean Penn’s brilliant portrayal of the charismatic, and important civil rights champion, Harvey Milk, on the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, tragically assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone. Now, obviously because this film revolves around homosexuals and homosexual lifestyles, it was easy for the film to devolve into some kind of ad campaign for gays, or some other agenda that would’ve actually taken away from Milk’s real purpose.
But the film does not ever do that. It is cleverly quiet in its depiction of gays, and honest. Sure, you have the “drag queen” stereotypes–I mean, this was San Francisco in the 70’s after all. But the characters that are involved with the main story are not caricatures. They’re very smart and endearing people who help Harvey Milk go from being an unknown gay activist into one of the most prominent voices in California history. And his message was simple: You’ve got to give them hope.
The film opens with Milk recording a will, “in the event” of his death by assassination, and Milk recalls his days in New York of being a nobody, turning 40 and “not accomplishing anything” he’s proud of, and moving to San Francisco to start a store, and becoming a very important figure in The Castro, San Francisco. His rise is a slow one. He’s openly gay, and especially at that time with how much intolerance there was of homosexuality, he had no chance to win anybody over in public office.
But Milk wasn’t stupid. He played the political game and actually began running competently against his competition, and finally wins a spot on the Supervisors Board in San Francisco. He also meets a fateful friend who becomes foe, in Dan White, a stark contrast in personality, and in lifestyle.
Dan White is played very well by Josh Brolin, who has just come off a great performance of George W. Bush in “W.”, and delivers another one here. White is a jealous, meek, and frightened man who sees Milk as a threat after Milk doesn’t play ball with him on a few issues. The strength of these two performances lends so much creedence to what the film is about, as well: fear. Milk is unafraid, but he’s not flawless. But his flaws do not define him as a person, like they do with White. White promotes the picture of the “American family”, and yet he becomes the largest hypocrite when it comes to this.
There are a lot of scenes of footage of Anita Bryant, who was severely opposed to gays and gay rights, and pushed for Proposition 6, which would take more rights away from gays (including jobs in schools, if they are teachers, etc.) and this becomes a focal point in the film.
The ending of the film is quite touching, and because Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black do such a good job giving Harvey Milk fair screen time, along with his friends and colleagues, that you really understand how important what he did was. And I think, ultimately, that’s all this film is trying to do. There’s no big agenda here. Milk is hardly mentioned when civil rights are brought up, and he is an important part of our growing more and more of social tolerance which unfortunately, still doesn’t exist the way it should–nor will it, probably ever.
But the film gets the job done very well, and even if you forget most of it like I’ve forgotten most of “Walk the Line” and whatnot, at least you remember who Harvey Milk is. And that’s why the film worked. Perhaps it’s a testament to the other characters in this film as well, and–it’s all about the movement. Not just the man. All in all, even if it’s a snapshot, it’s a snapshot that needed to be taken.