Almost a decade ago, shortly after moving to LA, an acquaintance in a writing group to which I then belonged, raved about how wonderful was the then-new release, Being John Malkovich.Â The flick, he claimed, had multiple levels of meaning and would soon rank with the great classics of cinema.
When I went to see the film, I was expecting a modern-day Citizen Kane, but discovered only a very quirky comedy which I might have liked better had I not expected so much.Â And so it was last night with Milk.Â That’s not to say the movie is not deserving of many of the accolades it has accrued. It’s just to say that, to me at least, it didn’t live up to the hype.
That said, the movie was an amazingly well done piece of cinema, well integrating its own dramatization of events in the 1970s with video footage of those very events.Â Very well integrating.Â And Sean Penn has truly earned his latest Oscar nomination.
The real problem with the film was the very difficulty of its project, trying to recapture on screen the live of a man during a turbulent time, in this case, the dawn of the gay rights’ movement.Â A biopic is perhaps the most difficult of films to make, as a man’s (or woman’s) life, powerful as it is, doesn’t always make a great story.Â After the movie, I was trying to think of all such films which moved me.Â Only three came to mind, Patton, Braveheart and What’s Love Go to Do With It.Â And each changed the facts to better dramatize the hero’s (or, in the case of that last film, the heroine’s) life.
Similarly, it seems the filmmakers added Penn (playing the eponymous Harvey Milk) taping his testament as a means to hold the various and disparate events of his life in the 1970s together.
The film starts with Milk moving from New York to San Francisco, together with his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco).Â He becomes politically active to stand up for the then-voiceless gay community at a time where the police (even in San Francisco!) raided gay bars and failed to investigate (even fatal) gay bashings.Â Later, when Milk finally wins election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, it shows the emerging tensions between himself and his would-be assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin).
Comparing those events depicted with our live today, we realize just how far gay people have come.Â Our sexual orientation is rarely a hindrance to our advancement any more, at least not in urban areas.Â Police reach out to gay communities within their jurisdictions.Â Numerous gay man and women have won election to public office, representing both major political parties and serving in all manner of positions.
At times, I wondered if the filmmakers were trying to find parallels to contemporary political events in the history of the 1970s, with Penn’s Milk frequently talking about “hope” much as did the gay organizations’ favorite presidential candidate this fall.Â Â Did they seek to compare the movement against Proposition 6 in 1978 (which would have barred public schools from hiring gay schoolteachers) to Prop 8 last year (which mandated that the state recognize only marriages between a man and a woman)?
While Penn’s Milk did note that even Ronald Reagan had come out against that 1978 ballot measure, the movie, focusing more on that late San Francisco Supervisor, didn’t show how much that great Republican’s efforts helped turn the tide on that awful initiative, all but ensuring its defeat.
It does seem director Gus Van Sant sought to downplay the Gipper’s involvement.Â He includes a clip of then-President Carter telling people to vote “No.”Â Yet, initiative author John Briggs credited Reagan with defeating his proposal.
Now, as I write on, it seems this post has become as diffuse as the movie.Â To be sure, the flick did do a good job of showing how insignificant the gay political movement was in the 1970s and how much one man, with a goofy but gracious aura (and I mean that in a good way) helped gay people find a voice.Â Harvey Milk truly was an inspirational figure.Â And for his story alone, the movie merits your attention.
Do see this movie, but don’t expect it to be the most brilliant, or moving, work of cinema you’ll see this year. Expect yourself to be entertained–and quite possibly moved, but not transformed.
Going it to see it with such expectations, you will likely not be as disappointed as I was and will certainly enjoy it more.Â As I learned in watching the Changeling,* it’s always best to go into a movie with lowered expectations.
*(I had assumed that movie was mediocre (based on an acquaintance’s criticism and some reviews I read).Â I agreed to see it because one friend insisted we go.)
UPDATE:Â Maybe I blogged too soon on the limitations of biopics.Â Saturday at dinner with two film buff friends and they mentioned numerous biopics that they enjoyed including Gandhi, Raging Bull and Lawrence of Arabia.Â While I’m not a huge fan of the first two flicks (while appreciating, as I do with Milk their artistic merits), I can’t believe I spaced Lawrence when I wrote this, truly a great flick, especially when you see it on the big screen.Â Later, I realized I would also add Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth to the list (but not its more recent sequel).