Sunday, February 15, 2009

The audacity of hope, and Harvey Milk

At some point in the middle of Milk, Sean Penn made me smile-- not just your run-of-the-mill smile, but one of those spontaneous, unsmotherable smiles that come from a warm place inside the gut. The scene was a birthday party for San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first gay man to be elected as a public official in California in 1977. A drag queen is belting out a disco tune, the room is packed with gyrating men and women (mostly men), and there in the thick of it all is Penn as Milk, who is pulled to the middle of the dance floor by the singer, and with a joyful girly scream starts dancing. By no means a significant scene in the movie, yet that brief moment captured what I found most wonderful about Penn's portrayal of Milk: it is so blithely natural, which is all the more impressive considering Penn's reputation as an actor who takes himself a bit too seriously.

Penn's Milk is lovable, funny, kind, generous, passionate, courageous, and inspiring, and Penn makes it easy to understand how Milk succeeded in leading the gay rights movement and giving a voice to the gay constituents of not just California, but across all the United States. It is just as easy to empathize with his frustration over losing several elections, his elation over finally winning, his anger over the injustices and prejudices against his fellow homosexuals, his fear over the death threats he receives, and his pain over lost loves.
This biopic tells us that Harvey Milk was someone who cared deeply and made a difference, at great personal sacrifice, and as a result opened the door for future generations of gay Americans. The underlying theme of hope (yes we can!) should resonate with contemporary audiences, and more than one scene had me teary-eyed with emotion stirred by the resilient spirit of those who believe in good, and a better tomorrow.

This is the 3rd Gus Van Sant film I've seen (Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester being the first 2), and so far he's 3 for 3 in giving me a memorable and enjoyable cinematic experience. As far as I can tell, Van Sant's take on Harvey Milk's life is both faithful and honest, and he is careful not to turn it into a fawning feel-good story. Even Milk's assassination is not made out to be martyrdom. Van Sant also gets some fantastic performances from his awesomely talented cast, including Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch (loved him in Speed Racer, adored him in this one), and Diego Luna, among others. I can't say what Van Sant's chances are at winning the Academy's vote this year (he faces stiff competition from Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire), but I have a feeling he'll get an Oscar before the end of his directing career. As for Penn's chances of scoring Oscar gold this year, he'll have to duke it out with
The Wrestler's Mickey Rourke, and it's such a close fight that I can't call the winner with full confidence.

Penn's flawless portrayal and Van Sant's impeccable direction aside, ultimately, what sets Milk apart from other biopics is that it is a history lesson in humanity, both Harvey Milk's, and that of the people of his time. Though we now live in supposedly enlightened times, it does us well to be reminded of past battles against intolerance, and of the people who fought the good fight... people like Harvey Milk.
Milk is a fitting, beautiful tribute to a great civic leader, a sociocultural icon, and an extraordinary human being.


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