Wednesday, February 18, 2009
#3 - MILK
I think my dad said it best: Milk is not a movie about gay rights. Milk is a movie about human rights.
Yes, Milk is about a gay man (Harvey Milk) who rose to a position of prominence and esteem (City Supervisor) in a major American city (San Francisco). And yes, he championed a number of gay causes along the way. But there is so much more to Milk than that most basic of plot outlines. Milk is a humanist film, first and foremost; at its heart is the idea that we, people, all ought to be fair to each other, up to and including the provision that we all be allowed to be ourselves. Milk goes further than the simple request that we all tolerate one another, it implores us to love our fellow humans.
If you've already seen Milk, you don't need me to tell you that it is an excellent film on every front. It is well shot, the time period is seamlessly represented, and the script is utterly smooth. Never while watching this film will you find yourself preoccupied by poor camerawork or a glaring anachronism or a scene which just doesn't work. In this sort of movie, the filmmaking ought to be invisible and in Milk, it is.
Props to Gus Van Sant for that achievement. I've watched roughly half of Van Sant's filmography and, for better or worse, all of his films have Gus Van Sant written all over them. All of them except Milk, that is. Truth be told, I wasn't sure he could make a movie without making it his movie, but he pulled it off here with aplomb. And he couldn't have picked a better spot to remove himself from the equation.
With the impeccable filmmaking and iconic director successfully (and wisely) disappearing from sight, the film's actors effectively become its face. Thank goodness for perfect casting. Honestly, the male actor categories of practically every film award show in existence could be filled out with the cast of Milk. I've already sung the praises of Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin in previous posts/comments, so I won't repeat myself here. But those are only a few of the many great performances laid on the line in Milk. Other notables include: James Franco as Milk's lover Scott Smith (obviously...he is terrific), Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg, Joseph Cross as Dick Pabich, and--though it pains me to say it, as the character was so obnoxious--Diego Luna as Jack Lira.
As with any great film (or other piece of art), summing it up in words is practically impossible. Milk is a movie you must see for yourself to truly understand. I saw it twice in theatres myself and each time I wound up in tears; not just watery eyes, but true tears rolling down my face. It's like that. The nearest I can come to doing this movie justice is to quote the ultimate Humanist: Kurt Vonnegut. In Milk, Harvey repeats what becomes a sort of mantra, a phrase the real Milk was known to say in speeches: "You gotta give 'em hope." Vonnegut, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, wrote something similar: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."
I think kindness and hope go hand in hand; both are certainly present in Milk. Even Brolin's Dan White, our protagonist's eventual killer, is treated fairly and with a certain kindness and understanding by Van Sant. In less capable hands, all of this beautiful compassion could have easily imploded. Van Sant does the ideas of hope and kindness and love and compassion justice. What an incredible achievement.
If you haven't seen Milk yet, do so. If you've avoided it because you're afraid to watch two men kiss or lay together, it's even more important that you see it. Milk isn't my favorite movie of the past year, but it is the film I want everyone to see. We owe it to ourselves, as human beings, to open our eyes to the potential for hope and kindness. These are the ideas which can carry us into the future, together. Writers like Vonnegut, filmmakers like Van Sant, and men like Harvey Milk are but a few of the bright lights to have lit our world; let's follow them forward.