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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Milk (review)

Ordinary People

It opens with archival footage of police raids on gay bars, grainy black-and-white stuff that’s like a grim glimpse into a distant dreadful past, like the 1950s and 60s were another planet, and you think, Geez, people really worried that much about who was sleeping with whom? Or, no: People worried that much about people just thinking about sex, people lonely enough to sneak into a secret bar in search of some company? People worried that much that they needed to bring the police into it?
And then you remember that some people still, today, worry about such nonsense as whose naughty bits are doing what with whose, or that God forbid two men might hold hands on the street where the children could see it. How do we explain this thing called love to the children? Horrors!

And so it’s clear that a movie like Milk is very very essential, even when it’s as conventional as it is. Perhaps even because it’s as conventional as it is. Oh dear, really? Harvey Milk’s relationships suffered because of his ambition… the ambition that ironically we remember him for today? You mean, just like straight people’s relationships suffer in Hollywood biopics, and lovers are left alone and the ties that bind don’t tie so well? Shocking!

I’m being glib, sort of, but I’m being sincere, too. There’s a lovely ordinariness to Milk that makes it special: “Look,” the film seems to say, “gays are people too, just as fucked up and wonderful and regular as the rest of us.” And there’s a luminous vivacity to Sean Penn’s (The Interpreter, The Assassination of Richard Nixon) Harvey, a kind of glow that I’ve never seen in the actor before and never would have imagined he could bring to the screen, a quality that elevates the cinematic orthodoxy of the flick to a new place.

“My fellow degenerates,” Penn’s Milk says with a grin to crowds of San Francisco supporters in the late 1970s, as he’s making history by running for local office as an openly gay man, and he’s funny and sweet and charming and you just want to hug him. And maybe it’s just me and my own evil degenerate ways, but who could hate this man? How could such a cuddly yet sad yet optimistic man be dangerous? Such a concept is ridiculous, and the matter-of-fact, no-bullshit approach of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (of HBO’s Big Love) and director Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park, Finding Forrester), avoiding his usual dreaminess, makes it seem as if, paradoxically, we’re already living in a world where such bigotry is a relict of the past. Which is precisely the right way to play it, if actually relegating such bigotry to the past is the purpose of a film like this. It pats bigots on the head and dismisses their delusions as just so much quaint unpleasantness that the rest of the world has moved in from, and if they want to cling to their old-fashioned narrow-mindedness… well, isn’t that adorable, in a disgusting way?

Look, there isn’t even much credence given to the notion that Milk was eventually shot to death because he was gay or a radical or was trying to bring down America with his calls for tolerance and nonhating. Black and Van Sant play the shooting of Milk by his fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin, topping an extraordinary year with this subdued performance) more as a personal thing, a workplace flareup by a coworker gone postal — White, the film seems to suggest, was so irked by Milk’s snubs that that was all the motive he needed, in his disturbed head. Who cares if he was gay?

Which isn’t meant to minimize the impact Milk had, or denigrate his memory, or lessen his importance to the gay-rights movement — isn’t meant to, and doesn’t. Milk worried about assassination and was threatened with it, and the film makes no bones about that. But in the end, Milk was a man, a person, not a label or banner or a symbol, and it may be the greatest tribute to him that his insistence on acceptance comes in a package that insists that he was, first and foremost, simply human, and subject to the same random terrible tragic crap as everyone else.


MPAA: rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
  • Chuck

    Sadly, not playing within 200 miles of my house.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s expanding over the next few weeks, and Penn is sure to get an Oscar nom, so it may get to you eventually.

  • Doa766

    it’s funny that on your review and every other review of this movie out there it is carefully explained that Milk was the first openly gay elected to public office and not the first gay in general, as if you don’t make that distinction then the first gay (closet) to be elected to public office might be ofended and sue

  • MaryAnn

    You don’t honestly think that, do you, Doa766? That critics are worried about being sued?

    That’d be hilarious and wonderful, though, if a whole bunch of closeted gays suddenly stepped out of the closet and demanded to be recognized as the first gay politician. It might open the eyes of some bigots to have their assumptions rocked.

  • Doa766

    I was being sarcastic, but it’s hard to get it across by writting, they’re not worried about being sued, but it’s surprising that no critic fails to make that distinction

    but yeah, it would be great, some guy going:

    “hey, I’m gay and I was elected senator on 1965, make a damn movie about me!!”

  • MaryAnn

    Okay, but even if you’re being sarcastic, what’s surprising about critics pointing out this important distinction? I don’t get it.

  • Doa766

    what is surprising is that out of 100 reviews all of them write it

    almost as if the critics were forced to do it (by the studio or whatever) or just out of panic of someone accusing them of not being politically correct or historically accurate

    and it’s only because the issue at hand is a “hot button”

    for example almost half of the reviews on the tomatomenter of “the departed” failed to mention that it was actually a remake and not an original american movie because it made Scorsese looked better and also because it could only offend asian movie fans, and not people who are usually discriminated (like gays)

    the accuracy on the reviews doesn’t come from the impulse to write to best of each critic ability but from the idea of not offending anybody or being biased

    I know that’s not your case

  • MaryAnn

    what is surprising is that out of 100 reviews all of them write it

    But the only reason the movie was made was because Milk was the first openly gay politician! That’s the whole point of the film. How would one review it without mentioning that? How do you talk about the movie without mentioning this? It would be like writing about *Lord of the Rings* and not mentioning the ring…

  • Doa766

    what you write about the source material on your reviews of movies adapted from videogames is most of the times dead wrong, because who gives a shit what gamers might think, right?

    yet, on this case, the details regarding Milk’s accomplishment are accurate

    critics only consider it necesary to be accurate when the subject is important, but have no trouble saying that Max Payne is a first person shooter, which is like saying Tara Reid is a great actress

  • Doa766

    mayhe we disagree because I don’t live on the states and the what Milk did doesn’t seem that much big of deal to me, if he was the most qualify person for the job then it’s natural that he was elected, the same with Obama, nothing else matters

    skin color or sexual orientation have nothing to do with the ability to exercise a political position

    any critic writing: “the first gay to be elected to public office” would receive a lot of angry emails and the review would be quickly corrected, because some people might believe it diminished his importance, when actually it doesn’t

    openly gay, gay, black, white, albino, redhead, whatever, it doesn’t matter

    succeding despite disadvantages implies being gay is a disadvantage, and it isn’t (or it shouldn’t be)

    is Obama openly black or just black, how do we measure his accomplishment then? it doesn’t matter

  • MaryAnn

    what you write about the source material on your reviews of movies adapted from videogames is most of the times dead wrong, because who gives a shit what gamers might think, right?

    You’re comparing a video game to the life of a real person? Are you suggesting that whether or not a game is a first-person shooter or not is important to whether a movie based on it works or doesn’t, or is a story worth telling, or not?

    I cannot believe you’re likening “discrimination” against gamers to actual bigotry directed at gays.

    skin color or sexual orientation have nothing to do with the ability to exercise a political position

    I’m honestly starting to think you’re trolling here. Of course skin color and sexual orientation have nothing to do with the ability to do anything. Both qualities have, of course, impeded many people nevertheless. Seriously, did you just hatch from an egg yesterday? How can you not be aware of the impact of irrational bigotry on, you know, human civilization?

    any critic writing: “the first gay to be elected to public office” would receive a lot of angry emails and the review would be quickly corrected, because some people might believe it diminished his importance, when actually it doesn’t

    What on Earth are you talking about? Do you seriously not understand the difference between someone who is gay but keeps it a secret and someone who is gay but is open about it? Do you seriously not understand why Harvey Milk’s candidacy and election was so groundbreaking?

    openly gay, gay, black, white, albino, redhead, whatever, it doesn’t matter

    Unfortunately, it does seem to matter to quite a lot of people.

    is Obama openly black or just black, how do we measure his accomplishment then? it doesn’t matter

    Okay, now I know you’re trolling. Or do you have some information on a subculture of closeted black people that the rest of us are unaware of?

  • Or do you have some information on a subculture of closeted black people that the rest of us are unaware of?

    Well, there used to be a big controversy in the black community about “passing”–which refers to both the ability to “pass” for white because of certain physical features and an option that many people of African-American descent took advantage of. But I doubt that’s what he’s talking about.

    …also because it could only offend asian movie fans, and not people who are usually discriminated (like gays)

    I’m not sure if he’s referring to just fans of Asian movies or movie fans who are Asians. Given the number of Asians who have experienced discrimination in this country, though, it is tempting to read an irony into that remark which wasn’t intended.

    But I won’t.

  • Go get ’em, MaryAnn!

  • The gay rights movement came right after the civil rights movement and of course was historical and in writing a review of the film, I too would (and do) mention that Milk is openly gay because that is the historical aspect of his life. That is is legacy. It’s sad that someone cannot see that but that person probably won’t see the film either. Harvey Milk began every speech saying, “My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.” He also had a “platform”, so to speak,” of getting people to come out to their families, friends and co-workers so being “openly gay” absolutely has bearing on the review and the film.

  • Luciela

    it’s funny that on your review and every other review of this movie out there it is carefully explained that Milk was the first openly gay elected to public office and not the first gay in general, as if you don’t make that distinction then the first gay (closet) to be elected to public office might be ofended and sue

    Took me a while to decipher the second part of this post. Meh. Actually in all honesty, I don’t see why that should be an issue in the first place. Isn’t the whole point of this movie about THE first openly gay politican after all? Touché, much?

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