Mark: Straight-up movie reviews get boring after a while. Movie reviews as debates, however, are usually a little more interesting. Since seeing Milk, I have felt like one of the few viewers to leave the theater with mixed feelings. But instead of taking the whiny contrarian route, Jaysen Wright ’09 and I will instead argue why Milk works and why it doesn’t. We will probably leave more sure of our opinions than when we started.
Jaysen: Milk’s Oscar wins last week (Best Actor, Sean Penn; Best Original Screenplay, Dustin Lance Black) were well deserved—it’s a story whose historical relevance is perfectly timed, presenting a phenomenal group of actors with material that pulls us fully and completely into the 1970s world of San Francisco.
Mark: The movie moves through the ups and downs of Harvey Milk’s political career. It begins with Milk’s local activism within the Castro District and spends time following Milk’s campaigns to serve on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (the city council) and the campaign against Proposition 6, designed to keep gay teachers out of California schools. Woven in throughout the movie is real life footage of statewide and national campaigns designed to depict the gay rights movement as it stood across America in the ’70s.
Jaysen: Sean Penn anchors the film as Harvey Milk. Penn’s a chameleon, adopting the voice, accent, and the physical tics of Harvey Milk, but more importantly, capturing his true essence: a man who came out of the closet late in life, but was ultimately determined to make a difference in his new community.
Mark: Which basically means that Harvey Milk is every screenwriter’s dream for a feel-good plotline. We have our fearless leader fighting against injustice, refusing to let one political defeat after another stop him, confronting misguided politicians, eventually winning his election and finally dying with dramatic music from Tosca. It’s biopic 101.
Jaysen: False! Harvey Milk isn’t glorified in this movie; Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay and Sean Penn’s performance make sure of that. We see Milk as a good and flawed human being, one whose political lust is at times unbecoming and alienating to the people who love him, but whose heart is generally in the right place.
Milk was a politician, not a saint. The scene where Milk’s lover Scott Smith (James Franco) says that he can’t take any more of the political world that they have become a part of rang true—not overdone, but honest and from the heart. The scene in which Milk “coaxes” (read: forces) one of his campaigners out of the closet is uncomfortable because it shows Milk’s crueler and less compassionate side—he’s the boss, the people working for him will follow his rules.
Mark: I can’t deny the power of these scenes, I just have a problem with how they’re set up. The tensions between Milk and Smith often get pushed aside for more detached scenes describing their relationship. The same thing happens with his second partner, Jack Lira (Diego Luna). When the relationships fall apart, we haven’t had the buildup to give it a real dramatic punch or effectively convey the downside of Milk’s political obsession.
I feel like it’s a decision from director Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black to keep Milk’s world consistently moving forward instead of stepping back and developing what’s there, making Milk look more like a movie with an agenda than a tale of an iconic politician. Even Milk’s scene forcing a supporter out of the closet seems like a one-off. The film moves quickly into the Prop 6 campaign about gay teachers in California and does not use the scene to discuss the gay rights movement as a whole. Am I expecting too much nuance from a relatively straightforward movie?
Jaysen: In a word: yes. I see your very valid point about the relationship that we see between Milk and Lira, but we have to remember that Van Sant is deliberately focusing on Milk’s public life while letting his private life slip into the background because that’s exactly what Milk was doing. He was a politician who was, at times, so bent on what he could achieve that his personal relationships suffered.
Further, while the movie may be “straightforward,” I think that’s one of the film’s strengths. It allows us to appreciate how strikingly relevant the issues that the film grapples with are to us as a modern audience. A community organizer who uses hope to invigorate his campaign? A proposition that will deny gay people rights? I think the parallels are obvious enough. The film is more than just issues though. It’s an honest look at a good man–a man we can all learn from. In that way the straightforward approach works very well.
Mark: Ok, so maybe I overanalyzed the film. But if I accept the straightforward nature of the film, I’m still feeling underwhelmed when the credits roll. It’s just too simple. Of course I’m going to be on Milk’s side; he’s got the political parallels and evil bigoted right-wingers to fight. Gus Van Sant would drag me out of the theater if I felt any other way.
This isn’t a bad film, but a decent one invigorated with great performances that falls a little short. Most people will undoubtedly come out happy. But with a by-the-numbers plot, it needs and deserves something more to push it into greatness, and it’s just not there.