Saturday, January 24, 2009

Film review: Milk - I was bored until near the end

There's a few major problems I had with Milk.

  1. I don't know enough of the history to gauge the film as an accurate reflection on the effect Harvey Milk had at his time.
  2. It seemed too camp, and camp just for the sake of it; and
  3. If it hadn't been based on a true story and didn't have Sean Penn as the lead, it would have flopped as unbelievable.
I gauge every film I see in one simple way - how long does it take before I look at my watch. With Milk last night it was about 40 minutes, enough for the story to unfold and the viewer to get a sense of where this is going. In fact, before the end, I must have looked at least three times more. I'd wanted to see the film.

Harvey Milk seems to have been a great guy. The movie tagline - His life changed history. His courage changed lives - is borne out by the articles written about him. The failing of the movie though is that it just didn't go far enough with the impact his election in San Francisco had. This event made national headlines, it was a big deal in the LGBT community and he achieved a lot through his activism, his ideas and his personality. He stood up to be counted.

The film followed this route for a while but seemed content not to explain, just to apparently assume the audience knew what a big deal Proposition 6 - the Briggs Initiative - was, what wider social impact a ban on gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California's public schools would have. It made token references towards the wider influence and inspiration that Milk was providing and failed miserably at showing how the work he did could positively affect people's lives.

Instead the film focussed on those around Milk and here was its biggest failure and most disappointing aspect. The emphasis on campness (as opposed to homosexuality) was almost unbelievable. Brokeback Mountain gained notoriety from the fact two straight actors were playing homosexual men. Milk decides to up that and has every actor, including Penn, mincing, simpering, camping it up for the camera and basically diluting their believability as credible characters. Even if it's a genuine portrayal, the over-acting contributes nothing to the film other than hammering home the point again and again - these men were gay. Okay, got that.

I actually found watching it slightly offensive - not the kissing or gay sex scenes which were overdone but that's Hollywood - but the continued barrage of showing that these men were gay and that the actors were playing gay men was just overwhelming at times. It's most visible in the quieter scenes, one for example where the new female campaign manager is introduced and the men present practically faint (and then bitch fight) in the presence of a woman. A throwaway quote from Milk "A homosexual with power... that's scary." is hard to believe in both its context and given the fight he's had to get here.

Another, the film's coverage of Milk's relationship with his partner Lira - the film version factually inaccurate - detracts from the significance of the campaign by taking up screen time which could be better spent. The uber effeminacy and exaggeration of characters, especially Emile Hirsch's portrayal of Cleve Jones seemed a nod to the character of Lieutenant Jim Dangle from Reno 911!: Miami more than anything else, as if this was going to win them the awards, because, you know, it was so different and daring for the actors to do. Perhaps it's very accurate, meticulously researched and genuine, but it just didn't seem that way to me.

This is what I mean by how, if it was fictional, it wouldn't be believable. It's assumed we know the history, assumed we realise how far things have come and how people like Milk who put themselves out there are responsible for so many civil rights being restored (or not taken away) and why their lives were so important. But not everybody does and I think not knowing that is a major disadvantage in watching the film. Important scenes are rushed, the more sexual scenes lingered over. Where Milk has connected with others is lost, the focus on his camp personality over played. We never get a sense either of Harvey Milk the politician or Harvey Milk the man.

It's not until the last five minutes (including the credits) that I got what the film maker had tried - and failed - to do, which was to show how much what Harvey Milk did mattered to people. He changed politics. His approach - apparently flamboyant, fiery and media savvy is lost in this film. He encouraged people to come out of the closet, to bring the issue that homosexuality was not anything but how people were from behind closed doors and to everyone's attention:
I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for their country ... We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets ... We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives... All men are created equal. No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words.
And it's at the end, when you see how he had the support of somewhere estimated between 25,000 and 40,000 people. You see how like Milk Sean Penn is and how well cast the others were in terms of looking like who they portray that the real genius of the film is evident. While around me all the girls were crying into their sleeves, I felt disappointed that I'd had to wait that long to see what Gus Van Sant was trying to do. I think he failed and it's a pity he did.

I look forward to seeing how it does at the Oscars. I don't think Penn deserves best actor, especially against Langella in Frost/Nixon. I certainly don't think Van Sant deserves best director or even Josh Brolin for best supporting actor. Costume design perhaps, writing, perhaps, Best Picture - no way. It's certainly a debatable one.

If the film has any legacy, I hope it's that people want to find out more about how one man managed to make such a difference, and inspire them to do the same. If it can do that, then maybe it's not that bad a film after all.


  1. Haven't seen it yet but looking forward to it. I'd suggest trying to get your hands on the documentary.

  2. Allan: I must do. I think I've heard so much about it being Oscar material that I was seeing how the director would have made it so. I'll keep an eye out for it.

  3. gus van sant is gay, isn't he?

  4. I think I totally disagree with you about this film. I didn't know Milk's story when I was watching the film, only read stuff about it afterwards, and I was not bored a single second.

    I think that the most important thing about Emil Hirsch's acting is that Cleve Jones actually endorsed it.

    I didn't find all characters too camp, by the way. And even if many of them are, I don't think it carries any wrong message. Being campy does not equal being unaware of basic concepts of human rights, does it?

  5. I thought it was pretty good myself, but I have some issues with this review...

    first off, you say a major problem you had with the film was:
    "I don't know enough of the history to gauge the film as an accurate reflection on the effect Harvey Milk had at his time."

    So, a problem with the film, was that you didn't know the history. That's hardly the films fault. Its not fair to call it a problem with the film that you weren't able to make an immediate call on its accuracy.

    Secondly, Harvey Milk was a camp guy. As you say, its probably meticulously researched. Penn and Franco at least take this kind of thing very seriously. If they were all leaping camp marys, then so be it.

    Finally, I don't think they assumed anything about the audiences knowledge. Personally, I think one of the film's strengths is that they made (me) have a great sense of what was going on at the time, and what a force Anita Bryant et al were, and I didn't know much about the scene/time.

    I can't argue if you found it boring, that's a personal thing, me personally, i found it engaging.

  6. I could not agree more with offthemeatrack on this one.

    I really liked the movie and didn't find myself looking at my watch at all, in fact, I didn't want it to end.

    The performances were fab on all counts and I think this movie did a great job of immersing the viewer in the story.

  7. I don't think this would be my cup of tea. I can't stand Sean Penn - I want to squish his face with a car. Theres just something spectacularly annoying about him.

  8. I love the Pennster.

    Wasn't he in Dead Man Walking, I cried at that and it takes a lot.

  9. Darragh we need to talk about this over a pint - or something :)

    As well as the book and documentary you need to see 'and the band played on' also for more context on San Francisco gay/social politics in the following decade.

    I can't usually stand Sean Penn but I loved him in this film. There was something so ordinary about Milk and Penn got it to audience amazingly in terms of lovers, music, and reaching out to others. I've written a little about this and some irish political issues tonight but I don't really do film reviews so we'll have to do the discussion face to face!!