Milk

Just the other day, I was bitching to a friend about the dearth of good movies these days. Movies that are about something other than mindless explosions - okay, so a good explosion or two can be quite satisfying, depending on your mood, but you know what I mean. Movies where the script, the acting, the direction and the cinematography all come together and create something that is engrossing, transforming and more than the sum of its parts.

Milk is one such movie.

I knew the broad strokes of the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to major office in California and I knew he was assassinated for it. The movie doesn't leave that as a surprise, starting with archival footage of the announcement of the shooting of Milk and the mayor of San Francisco. As the opening credits roll, it also shows archival footage of gay men being rounded up by police, very effectively setting the time and prejudice against which the story plays out. The movie cuts back and forth between Harvey Milk sitting at his kitchen table, recording his story to be played in case of his death by assassination - can you imagine how that must feel? - and telling that story from his position to leave New York go to San Francisco with his lover Scotty, starting a business, running for office several times until he was finally elected, showing the politics, the prejudice and the way Milk worked within the system to create change.

The script, written by Dustin Lance Black, is excellent, very much deserving of winning the Oscar(such a great speech), seamlessly weaving back and forth in time, achieving that wonderful state of dialogue sounding so natural that you forget it's scripted and just lose yourself in the lives on the screen. Gus van Sant directs brilliantly, the cinematography is wonderful, capturing those 70s hues, framing actors within sweeping architectural scenes, conveying the place and history of this important story. And then there’s the acting, which is uniformly wonderful (James Franco is going to be doing great things) but in continuing my reviews of Oscar winners, I need to talk about Sean Penn. Except maybe I don't quite have the words to talk about how incredible his performance was. Penn specializes in playing characters wound so tight they’re on the verge of imploding, his intensity practically reaching out through the screen and grabbing you by the throat, but his portrayal of Harvey Milk is completely different. He's changed everything, from the cadence of his voice to his body language and plays Milk with a loose, smiling playfulness, fully inhabiting his character to the point that I forgot I was watching Sean Penn, instead being drawn into Milk’s open emotions, be they joy, sorrow or anger, not an implosion in sight. Eminently worthy of his Oscar.

I love this movie not just for its excellence in storytelling, but for making me think. It made me wonder (again) what it is about people who are different, people who are Other that is so threatening. And I wonder especially what it is about homosexuality that gets people so riled up. In the movie, there is an interview with Milk after his win where the reporter asks whether this means that The Gays are taking over - a question so stupid that I cringed, my toes curled all the way up under my heel - and you can hear the capitals and the thing is, that attitude is still out there, isn't it? I never understood why it was anyone's business who I sleep with (providing that my choice is a consenting adult), I never understood why people’s choice of sexual partner could possibly harm someone else, why it would prompt proposed legislation like the Briggs initiative. I don't understand why someone's sexual orientation is so frightening that they would have to be beaten up or killed and I don't understand why when the Supreme Court of California makes a decision that banning same-sex marriage violates the Constitution, the matter can be taken to a vote and the public can decide that it doesn't. Except maybe people still worry that The Gays are taking over...

The movie also made me wonder why it is that people who represent change must be dealt with violently. Why is it that people who become leaders of a movement, people like Harvey Milk or Martin Luther King Jr. are assassinated? Why is it that granting someone else the same rights as the rest of society makes people believe it takes away their rights? Why do people get so unreasonable about this?

And I could go on, but I leave you with this last thought. I'm going to buy this movie. Not just for the storytelling, not just for the questions it asks and for the thinking it prompts, but because it is a really good primer on how to create a grassroots movement. In telling the story between Milk's arrival in San Francisco and his growth into becoming a force for change, this movie brilliantly shows how to create a movement composed of ordinary people, how to make alliances, some of them very unexpected, how to work within the system to make the world a better place. And that's quite the accomplishment for a movie.


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