Sunday, April 5, 2009

MILK (Gus Van Sant, 2008, USA)

"Conservative Christian, right wing Republican, straight, white, American male.
Gay bashin’, black fearin’, poor fightin’, tree killin’, regional leaders of sales
Frat housin’, keg tappin’, shirt tuckin’, back slappin’ haters of hippies like me.
Tree huggin’, peace lovin’, pot smokin’, porn watchin’ lazyass hippies like me.
Tree huggin’, love makin’, pro choicen, gay weddin’, widespread diggin’ hippies like me."
-Todd Snider

Sean Penn’s heated performance pasteurizes MILK and condemns venomous homophobic protists by portraying Harvey Milk, not as caricature repeating his prescient ideals and values, but as a complex human being. Director Gus Van Sant structures the film around Harvey’s sad and poignant epitaph, his final words spoken into a tape recorder while the narrative uses flashback so we ascend towards his past: this is all the more melancholy because we know how his life ends…while he only suspects it. The narrative follows standard operating procedure as we meet Harvey Milk at a nexus of his life, and we follow this underdog crusader through the highs and lows of his personal and professional life. Gus Van Sant rarely resorts to pure conventional melodrama and always keeps a few surprises awaiting us, and is able to make Harvey’s struggle to transcend the boundaries of his own Idios Kosmos and vaccinate the shared world against bigotry. The film could have descended into a vehement preaching rant…but that tactic is reserved for the bigoted Conservative Christians: Harvey talks sense and compassion and uses his status as city supervisor to attain his goals while Anita Bryant and politician John Briggs inflame congregations with hatred, cruelty, and blatant lies. The supporting cast is convincing and adds depth to the film though we mostly experience Harvey’s life from his own perspective. Josh Brolin as Dan White is wonderfully portrayed as a confused and angry multi-faceted person, not an inhuman monster motivated by the drivel vomited by Anita Bryant and John Briggs. The film also fails to offer easy answers and depicts the gay community in a realistic fashion: these are people with the same desires, hopes, and aspirations, no different from you and me (or the Conservative Christian Right Wing Republican Straight White American Male) and deserving of equal protection under the law. If you disagree, you’re an idiot: look up the Greek etymology and maybe you’ll have an epiphany! MILK is a homogenized biopic that should be part of any balanced celluloid diet. (B+)

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