December 3, 2008

REVIEW: Milk (B+)

For the second time this year, I've found myself reliving a history that I wasn't alive for: specifically, an inspiring event in the U.S. in the 70's. In 1974, Philippe Petit defied gravity for the simple reason that he could; in 1978, Harvey Milk ran for public office for the simple reason that he couldn't. Both men captured the attention of a city while inspiring a generation of people to reexamine their purpose in life.

I find it surprisingly easy to compare Man on Wire and Milk, maybe because the former was so unlike a documentary and the latter was so much like a documentary. A similarity through differences, if that makes sense. And then there's this trait that both share: while excellent films about important issues, neither moved me emotionally in the way I expected.

Milk, for all its painstaking work in illustrating eight years in the life of the gay rights activist-turned-politician Harvey Milk, still didn't quite succeed in connecting me with the man - and it's not because I'm straight. It's because I didn't feel as if I got to know who he was, where he came from and what he wanted in life. Of course I understand what he was fighting for, but you didn't have to make a movie to show me that. I mean I don't think I know who Harvey Milk was. It says something about the limitations of a biopic
(and a life tragically cut short), I suppose, and it's made me rethink my own campaign for a film about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Can a movie do justice to these stories about larger-than-life figures? In any case, Milk tells us more about the a movement than it does about a man - not a missed opportunity, just not the angle I was looking for.

Gus Van Sant (who directed Paranoid Park just last spring) does as much as he can with the by-the-book screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (the life-story-on-tape did nothing for me), and he fortunately has a dream of a cast at his disposal. James Franco (Pineapple Express) and Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer) excel in their respective roles, fully committing themselves to characters that I can only imagine are a far cry from their own identities. I suppose the same could be said for Diego Luna (most recently seen as Michael Jackson in Mister Lonely - don't ask), but his character is so annoying that you find yourself waiting for him to get off the screen. Josh Brolin (W.) continues to establish himself as a rising dramatic star, but we don't get enough time with him on his own to explore the depths of his character, either.

As the namesake of the film, Sean Penn delivers as expected, imbuing the hero with fiery emotion and a playful self-awareness. Clearly this was a role that Penn cared a great deal about, and his inevitable Oscar nomination can hardly be disputed. Part of me feels like I'm seeing him in the same roles over and over, but then again I'm someone who liked him in both All the King's Men and The Assassination of Richard Nixon, both of which were roundly panned (and I wonder if the criticism isn't what drove him to disappear behind the camera last year instead). There's no question that he's one of the greatest actors of his generation, and if he continues to seek out challenging roles he'll solidify his place as a Hollywood legend.

Sean Penn practices his Oscar acceptance speech - just in case...

Judging by the sniffling and cheering in the theater around me, it's clear that Milk has hit a cultural nerve in this country at this time, no doubt influenced by the recent Prop 8 vote in California. It's a movie that will educate a generation about a time that they may have either forgotten or simply been unaware of, and to that end it's a grand success. But it left me wanting more of Harvey Milk, and I still have a lingering feeling that it would take a documentary or (get this) a book for me to understand his motivations and the source of his courage. Carried by its outstanding ensemble cast, Milk will no doubt continue to receive attention during this awards season. If you're moved by it more than I was, I imagine it will be one of the most affecting movies you'll see all year.

Writing - 7/10
Acting - 10/10
Production - 9/10
Emotional Impact - 8/10
Music - 5/5
Social Significance - 5/5

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+


  1. I have no idea when I'll get to see this now because I had to miss my press screening for class. I'm trying to temper my expectations but I'm glad to hear you liked it.

  2. Yeah, this opens in SA in April.

    But it's Gus Van Sant.

    So, I am stoked.

  3. I'm shocked. Somehow I've seen this before both of you. I'm fairly sure you'll both dig it, though I'm curious, Nick, what you'll think since you tend to prefer Van Sant's more experimental films. Or so I thought. Either way, this one definitely isn't experimental.

    Seriously, April? You could save up for a trip to just fly to the States and see it by then. Quick while the dollar is still worth beans!

    Anyway I'm sure you'll both get your hands on this before the Oscars come around.

  4. Biopics are so rarely successful. Yet I'm usually more eager to see a biopic than almost any other type of film. The reason is extracinematic, I think - I just like interesting life stories. But I recognize that they are rarely satisfying nonetheless, and usually come in for criticism from me though I don't regret seeing them.

    Documentaries are usually far more compelling, however - the richness and spontaneity of real life tend to get filtered out in fictional biopics, and so oddly enough truth beats fiction for imaginativeness every time.

    The best biopics tend to focus on a narrow slice of someone's life: either one aspect and/or one period in the subject's life (Lawrence of Arabia, Patton), or else organize the passing years around a singular theme or structure (Raging Bull). The grabbag effect is the most usual approach, however, and the least effective (though I enjoy and respect a conventional biopic like Gandhi, I think it's held short of greatness - and most other biopics don't come close).

    Actually, one of the best biopics I've seen in recent years - one of the best, period - was the HBO film The Life & Death of Peter Sellers. Though it did take the usually-flawed biopic approach - spanning most of Sellers' life and career rather than focusing its vision - I think it succeeded because its theme was the very inscrutability of its subject.

    Speaking of which, Citizen Kane is in one sense a biopic but I'd say it succeeds (beyond our wildest dreams) for a couple reasons: 1) it fictionalizes its subject, fitting him to cinematic structure and expression, rather than vice-versa, 2) like the Sellers biopic, it makes the unknowability of its main character the primary subject - doesn't "Rosebud" stand for every biographer's attempt to sum up a life in (if not one) several thousand words...or images?

    Well, your post has got me thinking - thanks. Perhaps a biopic series is on its way in '09...

  5. Movie Man's exclamatory assessment of MILK as one of the greatest of bio-pics notwithstanding, I have come around to your way of thinking on this film. MILK is still a contender for my own ten-best list, but there is an element of the "personal" missing. Perhaps it's because Van Sant focused on the film as a movement rather than an in-depth biography (and perhaps he was not wrong to do this) and he used Harvey Milk as a "symbol" of that movement. As you would expect from Van Sant, we did get an intimate look at his sex life, but perhaps not what drove him in a motivational sense.

    But the other side of the coin of course is that taking on such an admittedly vital concern, would be at the expence of the viseral and stylish filmmaking that Van Sant imparted to the project. I always think of sequences like the multi-split screen telephone calls, accelerating in volume for example. That's really great stuff, even if we've seen this from others. It and other sequences like it give this film a trenchant sense of immediacy, and a relentless forward movement.

    It's an exceptional film for sure, and a second viewing of it is very much in order for all of us, especially to see how constricting our minor reservations here really are.

    Dan, you are at the top of your game here with this perceptive piece.

  6. Incidentally Dan, I applaud you on that MILK and MAN ON WIRE comparison. Especially since you found that the personal element in that documentary was also missing, and that is the matter with Petit, who admittedly wasn't examined as well as some of us would of liked.

    Still both are exceptional films in spite of this flaw, and both do contend for year-end honors.

  7. Wow, tremendous comments here.

    MovieMan, your analysis there is brilliant and I agree with all of it. There are definitely some documentaries that do better justice than biopics - something like Jonathan Demme's "The Agronomist", for example (for which there was no fictionalized version).

    Maybe the most important aspect to biopics is the purpose. There are a lot of interesting historical figures, but do we need to know ALL about their life or just about their involvement in one thing - a slice of their life, as you've said. I guess I wanted more from Milk. And Man on Wire, for that matter, which skated the line between biopic and doc but worked better as a documentary primarily because of the amount of archival footage available. Seeing a CGI reenactment of Petit walking the wire would have been offensively bad.

    But then I think of someone like Jim Jones. "Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple" is probably one of the best documentaries I've ever seen, and it works as a biopic as well. Do I need to know more about Jim Jones than the what happened with Jonestown? Probably not. So I think some people's stories lend themselves better to biopics than others. Incidentally, I saw the History Channel reenactment of the Jonestown story and it was horrible.

    So anyway you've got me thinking about it as well. I'd love to see you do a biopic series. Also, regarding Citizen Kane and your accurate description of it - sounds a lot like last year's "I'm Not There", doesn't it? I thought that was pretty brilliant as well.

    Sam, you summarize my thoughts perfectly, and thanks as always for the compliment. I can't criticize Van Sant for going by the book (I'd lay most of grief with Black, the screenwriter), because I still got some new insights from the film.

    The multi-screen phone calls really caught me off guard - and I liked it. I don't know if Van Sant was constrained by the screenplay or if he didn't want to be accused of being too artsy with Milk's story, but I wouldn't have minded more of that signature Van Sant style (about all I recognized of his involvement was Dan White's last long walk down the corridor).

  8. Indeed Dan, on that Dan White walk down the hallway. It is a Van Sant trademark. I will never forget a similar walk by the two murderous protagonists (with a sense of impending doom measured in) in the director's greatest film, ELEPHANT.
    And yes, for sure the screenwriter is to be given the fault or the credit for the direction the narrative took here.

  9. It's interesting that both Citizen Kane and the "lack of personal" have both been brought up in this thread. Tangentially, that's why I admire CK more than I love it. It never draws me in emotionally and it always feels more like a brilliant (and entertaining) technical exercise than a fully fleshed piece of cinema to me.

    I don't want to start a Citizen Kane crapstorm so I'll leave it at that, but I tend to agree with Daniel's estimation of Milk's emotional component. It's the same thing that gave me initial pause about Synecdoche New York (though in that case I got over it). I didn't have that problem with Man on Wire at all, but Mr. G and I have plowed that field many times so I won't return....back to Milk in my own rambling way....for me a large chunk of the emotional connection came directly from Prop 8 which was completely coincidental to the making of this film.

    I'd just recently seen the terrific little documentary Saving Marriage about the equal marriage battle in Massachussettes that I keep telling anyone who will listen to see, and it really clarified my positive stand on gay marriage.

    Prop 8's passage in what is supposed to be one of the most progressive states in the country was a surprising and disappointing blow to me even though as an unmarried straight guy I don't technically have a dog in the fight. It really rained on the Obama parade I was prepared to wallow in.

    Particularly disappointing that the Democratic party did very little in the way of supporting the anti-8 movement. Senator Diane Fienstein, the woman who as a city supervisor discovered Harvey Milk's body did ONE anti-8 commercial very late in the campaign. I understand it was not politically expedient, but I'm tired of political expedience. I want people who do things because they're the right things to do.

    I'm digressing again. Milk. Thoughts of Prop 8 and the crushing realization that anti-gay bigots are using the same arguments (but slightly disguised) to restrict the civil liberties of my friends and neighbors 30 years after Harvey Milk fills me with a combination of rage and sadness.

    Milk himself as portrayed by Penn was a very likeable and engaging fellow, but what really gets me is what he stands for and that's ultimately what put the movie over for me.

    Gay or straight. Male or Female. White, black or other. Let your freak flags fly ladies and gentlement and never let the squares win.

    All I'm saying.

  10. Interesting discussion ... I think of two music biopics that were very popular over the past few years: Walk the Line and Ray. They had almost identical plots: music star rises to stardom from country roots, music star gets hooked on drugs, music star kicks drugs with the help of a good woman who stands by her man. The end.

    But both Johnny Cash and Ray Charles lived a long time after their drug days, they were much more than just a drug habit. What about the rest of it? And in the case of Cash, religion played a significant part in his rehabilitation. Where was that? These were two poorly balanced pics, imho ... sure, you can't say everything about a long life, but if you purport to be a biography, you should fairly represent the person.

    Fine review, Daniel

  11. I skipped Ray for some reason, but I totally agree about Walk the Line. Great subject, good acting, totally by-the-book storyline that doesn't do the legend justice.

  12. Sam, the unflinching point-blank shooting at the end also brought to mind Elephant (especially because it immediately followed the walk, but even without the walk).

    Craig, I agree that Prop 8 in large part affected people's emotions while they were watching Milk. The similarities are ridiculous, actually, and it's surprising (to me) that the release of this movie at this time didn't cause greater political action by either CA's elected representatives or even its own engaged citizens, like you. I mean I don't know what you could have done, but the coincidental timing of this just a month too late is really weird. If there was ever a movie that would seem to have real-world influence in that way, this would have been a great example.

    Rick, thanks, and great point especially about Ray. I remember literally bursting into laughter at the end of the movie when the photo montage began: "Over the next 40 years, Ray Charles blah blah blah". Are you kidding me? We missed out on over half of his life!

    Of course I don't have an answer as to how Taylor Hackford could have better balanced things (though MovieMan offers some shining examples), but throwing that in the end only made the situation worse. It was almost the same thing with Cash, but just not as obvious.

    I suppose in both movies - and now in Milk, the most "important" part of their lives are shown. Maybe that's all we can ask for. And maybe that's why you flinch at the term "biopic", Craig. These aren't really biographies at all...

  13. At the Q&A with the producers and screenwriter after the film, someone asked why Milk didn't come out to coincide with the Anti-8 campagne and it simply wasn't ready. They premiered it early in San Fran in the runup to the election but it was the best they could do.

    I'm sorry that Saving Marriage didn't get more attention too.

  14. Wow, well I can't believe just a few weeks would make such a difference, but then I guess they were just filming last winter and spring. After Stone's "W." I guess I just expect everything to have a quick production turnaround.

  15. I really liked this film.

    My only real issue with the film -- which I see reflected in your final grading at the end -- was the screenplay, which could have been much tighter and been a little bit more original. I don't think Lance Black wrote a traditional biopic (by accident or on purpose, I don't know), but in some scenes tried to make it a traditional biopic, so there were parts that didn't fully work for me. I liked that the film was more about this movement, that we aren't shown more about Harvey Milk's life beforehand. I don't really think it was needed, but that may be just me.

    I think that the writing and all of the other elements really came together perfectly for that final sequence, though.

    My problems with some of the writing really didn't take away from the emotional impact it had. The performances, the direction, everything else was just so well done, I have nothing to complain about. I went in expected a great movie, and I got one.

  16. Sam,

    I actually haven't seen Milk so I'm not sure how I could consider it one of the greatest of biopics (and I doubt I will once I've seen it)!


    Interesting you should mention I'm Not There, as I didn't really care for it. It was actually my second review ever - you can read it here:

    As for all the Prop 8 talk, I don't think Milk would have made a huge difference. Yes, in part the problem may have been a lack of mobilization for the base - but didn't most of the Prop 8 people get out to vote for Obama anyway (or was there perhaps a dip because Calif. was a sure thing for him anyway)? One aspect I found interesting was that supposedly a majority of minorities (weird phrase) voted for Prop 8. And at any rate the discrepancy between Obama's victory and Prop 8's passage would suggest that a good deal of Obama voters went for the measure.

    I understand the anger following this decision, but I think some of the protests and demonstrations are misguided. Obama won because he came across as centrist and reasonable, and the original anti-gay measure in the 70s may have been shot down in part because Ronald Reagan came out against it. In other words, mobilizing the base is only part of the battle and reaching the center is just as if not more important.

    So, while Milk would have helped in the former respect, would it have helped in the latter? I don't know, as I haven't seen it. Any thoughts from those who have? Perhaps this is an area in which its conventionality would have actually been an asset (politically, if not aesthetically)?

  17. I'll make sure to check out your review on I'm Not There and see where we differ on it.

    It is a fair point to bring up the voting discrepancies about Obama and the Prop 8 supporters. Not having lived in CA for a couple of years now, I don't know what the campaigning may have been like out there, but my guess is that, as you say, it may not have reached the "centrists" enough, minorities included. That and there was a strong campaign by the other base - the Mormons.

    Anyway, I think the conventionality of Milk WOULD have been more successful than a typical Van Sant film, but now, of course, there's no way of knowing.

  18. The Pro 8 campaign played on the same fears as Prop 6 back in Harvey's day but it was candy coated. They had commercial after commercial claiming that gay marriage would suddenly be tought in elementary school and that churches would be forced by the state to perform gay marriages.

    The latter claim might actually be true in that I think the state might be able to take away a church's tax-exempt status if it wanted to...but the first claim is ridiculous unless they're teaching kids about sex and marriage a lot earlier than they did when I was a boy.

    Anyway...given some chance, Milk could have inspired some people for whom it simply wasn't an issue but who are generally decent folks to vote for it.

    Saving Marriage had that impact on me. I'm all for gay marriage in principle, but it never really felt like my fight. Original proponents of gay marriage talked alot about legal rights in terms of inheritance and insurance, but for some reason it never quite hit me as a basic civil rights issue.

  19. I love that the movie has led to a discussion like this. I'd hope for the same from every movie, really, but I'll take what I can get.

    I remember you speaking highly of Saving Marriage a couple of months back. That never made it here and didn't hear much else about it - kind of strange in the run-up to Prop 8 and Milk, but I guess maybe it was considered too "fringe" to be mainstream and expand to second-tier markets.

    Teaching marriage - "traditional" or gay marriage - in school doesn't just seem strange, as you point out, but wrong? I don't remember ever have learned anything about family systems in school - at least not directly. Of course I wouldn't really have had my eyes out for anything like that in the first place. Believe it or not this was still a completely taboo issue among high school students even 10 years ago, but that may have been more indicative of my school than the common culture of the time.

    Anyway, all of this is to say that movies like Milk and Saving Marriage are, in my opinion, great platforms from which to discuss these issues that people otherwise don't want to touch. It takes one brave filmmaker to take something on (from Spike Lee and Malcolm X to Neil LaBute and Lakeview Terrace, among many others - even Van Sant's Elephant) to allow all of us to feel comfortable actually having the discussion. I wish that happened more often.

    Quite a few movies like that this year, when I think about it. Up the Yangtze, Boy A, Traitor, Quid Pro Quo, among others.

  20. Daniel -- I think that's the sign of a good movie.

    I remember when gay marriage was legalized here, and everything that followed the decision. Saving Marriage isn't out on DVD anytime soon and it hasn't opened in MA yet.

  21. Daniel, what was your opinion of Lakeview Terrace? I didn't see it but had the strong suspicion that the trailers were showing us a distorted view of the movie (this was based, in part, on the wildfires in the back of some scenes that went unmentioned, and was reinforced by the discovery that Neil LaBute had directed).

    Craig, if what you said about churches was true I would oppose the change, but everything I've heard suggests it isn't. Legal marriage and religious marriage aren't actually the same thing, and gay marriage would apply only to legal marriage, as that's where the state's arm applies.

    Of course, this brings to mind two things which, ideally, I would like to see come to pass. 1: no tax exemption for religious institutions - this is as much to protect them from governmental pressure as vice-versa. 2: get government out of the business of defining what "marriage" is - call all legal unions something else, and leave marriage to the private sector, to individuals and to churches.

    Of course, the chance of either of these changes passing are just about nil. But it would go a long way to reminding people that government does not define who we are or what our society is - and allow us to focus on the matters government SHOULD be concerned with, like health coverage, economic/energy regulations, and national defense.

    But as long as marriage is a legal institution I think gay couples should be included. Though I think legislatures are a better arena for this than courts, both in principle - since I don't think marriage is inherently is inclusive of homosexuality, it would have to (and should) be redefined as such - and for pragmatic reasons, as then you won't have public reactions like the passage of Prop 8.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter. I would like to see this "Saving Marriage" film - it's a documentary, I take it?

  22. Yes, for the most part I think that's true, k - the best movies lead to the best discussions.

    Saving Marriage is a documentary, MovieMan. I guess it was produced in 2006 but not released until this year, and then only in a few cities. Here's Craig's review.

    I can say that I haven't thought about the definition of marriage as much as I have this year, that's for sure. Or at least not about how it's made official by the church, state and religion. Despite the fact that the majority of people are still against gay marriage (and despite all the state constitutional amendments), I don't see how it's not going to become legal in a generation or two. The gay population in the U.S. has exploded in the last 20 years, increasing by more than 10 fold according to articles I've seen. It will be up to opponents to either accept gay marriage outright or change the definition of their own arrangements, I suppose.

  23. Oh, I forgot you asked about Lakeview Terrace, MovieMan. Here's my review. It was pretty poor as a thriller but I thought Patrick Wilson was decent and I thought it was an important issue to focus on. Probably deserved a better movie, though.

  24. Well, like I promised, I'm here.

    Another one of your best reviews, Daniel--you're on a true roll--as it most delicately but still firmly establishes just what you took from the film. Very comprehensive and I believe I'm in just about complete agreement, which never hurts.

    Part of me wanted more of an all-out "biopic," so to speak, or at least a greater investment in exploring Milk the man, like you just said at Coleman's Corner. There are certainly pieces of his personality to be found, but somehow I still believe the film makes a miscalculation in beginning the protagonist's arc where it does.

  25. Thanks as always, Alexander. This is another review that I didn't feel so hot on after I hit the "publish" button, but I'm glad it led to an interesting discussion.

    Whether it was the awkwardly timed entry into his life or the life-on-tape mechanism, it just felt like something was missing. I was really pretty annoyed with the taped narration, actually. I don't know if that was true or not (did he record his life story in his kitchen), but it felt conventional and bland, and save for the last few minutes of it, not at all engaging.


Related Posts with Thumbnails