Monday, January 26, 2009


So I saw "Milk," because I've never really understood San Francisco, and I figured it was about time I took a stab at it.

Ha! Just kidding. Of course I understand San Francisco, even though I've never lived there, and only visited a few times. It's a lot like Boston, but with better college football teams (Los Angeles compares favorably with New York in this respect as well).

What I don't think Boston has ever had is a politician quite like Harvey Milk, i.e. a character colorful enough to be played by Sean Penn in an Oscar-nominated role in a Gus Van Sant movie (although Van Sant did make an Oscar-winning movie about a colorful character in Boston).

There's one thing that struck me as a little odd about this role for Sean Penn; the character is a lot of fun. Not that Sean Penn doesn't know how to have fun! The man was, after all, married to Madonna. But he won his Oscar for playing a rather depressing character in one of Clint Eastwood's more serious dramas (which is saying a lot).

But Harvey Milk is just a blast. You have a feeling that he's gay in both senses of the word - he's homosexual, and he's just a great guy to be around. He's not frivilous or superficial, airheaded or blissfully optimistic. He's just having a grand old time fighting for what he believes in.

It's probably helpful that what he believes in is his own right to be in love with whoever he wants. This is not to say that all is goodness and light in his life - he has more than his share of extraordinary pain, the kind of pain that can be just as powerful a motivator to fight for political change as wanting to be in love. In the movie, we do not see as much of the pain as we do of the love, but we are very well aware of the former. This is a movie about peace and love and guys wearing long hair and stupid mustaches and living the hippie dream. But it's also a movie about people getting beat up and murdered and ostracized. It's a movie about an inspirational leader who can rally thousands and have them cheering in seconds. But it's also about a politician who has to frantically try to stop riots and is willing to play hardball with his political opponents and who enjoys his own sense of power.

It is also a very, very good movie with a superb cast. Josh Brolin, who plays Dan White, Milk's fellow Supervisor, political opponent, and murderer, was also nominated for an Oscar, for supporting actor. He played George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's W., so he was nominated for an Oscar for playing the lesser evil of the two Republicans he played in movies this year. James Franco delivers a wonderfully light and tender but grounded performance as Scott, one of Milk's longtime lovers. The scene where Milk asks him out is incredibly charged but sweet, simply a great seduction scene. Beneath the politics lies a good old-fashioned love story. The only thing missing from the traditional good old-fashioned love story is a woman.

Which is a little bit of a problem from the perspective of our current showbiz politics. This is, unfortunately, like a lot of other Hollywood movies, missing great roles for women. Sorry, girls, these guys are bonding, and they're still figuring out how to deal with members of their own sex - members of the opposite sex don't have the usual priority for these guys. Women are victims of the present's relationship with the past in these terms - sometimes there aren't lots of good roles for women in movies being made today because there weren't a lot of good roles for women in real life throughout history. It's not Hollywood's fault that one of the most fascinating gay politicians was a guy. There is one role, however, that I would have liked to have seen more of, and that is Dianne Feinstein. Her current status as a Senator probably precluded doing much with her in the movie - she's just too well-known. There is archival footage of her announcing what happened. She was the one who found Harvery Milk's body.

It is technically a tragedy, because Harvey Milk dies at the end of the movie. But in most of the moments before then, it is a celebration. Sean Penn just won the SAG Award for Best Actor in a movie. He may very well win the Oscar. He deserves it.


Phil Ha said...

Boston? um, I don't think you understand San Francisco. Maybe you should visit your brother and spend some time here!

JohnTEQP said...

The parallels that I see between San Francisco and Boston are that they are both northern cities with ports, bad weather, and lots of high tech companies. But I do realize that there is probably more to the comparison between these two fine cities, and that I would probably develop a better appreciation of those differences if I did, in fact, visit my brother more often. Which I really should do.