Saw Milk. Some thoughts:
• First thing's first. It's as if director Gus Van Sant reached straight into my spank bank to cast this film. Exhibit A: Emile Hirsh. (He has been all kinds of hot since the underrated boy-meets-porn star movie, The Girl Next Door.... I also frequently reenact in my mind the time he a gave a guy friend of mine an impromptu shoulder massage in a restaurant—be still my beating crotch!). Exhibit B: Diego Luna. (Ai papi! Several years ago, I wrote that I wanted to "jump on him with the fervor of a crack whore on, well, crack"). Exhibit C: James Franco. (His glorious, bite-worthy ass is on display during a triumphantly gratuitous skinny-dipping scene. [But, apparently, the full-frontal shot of the prosthetic penis that he's spoken so fondly of in the press has been cut—I mean, the shot has been cut, not the penis—well, I don't know, maybe the penis was cut, but I won't know until I see the director's cut, er, I mean, director's edit.]) [Addendum 9:30PM: A dedicated reader in the comments section has pointed out a glaring omission! Exhibit D: Lucas Grabeel. (So so very very gay as Ryan in the High School Musicals, Grabeel trades off between tight shirts that cling to his hot chest and...sundresses. Van Sant treats me well indeed.)]
• Sean Penn, who immerses himself completely in the role of slain San Francisco supervisor and gay rights leader Harvey Milk, delivers the spirited and layered performance that you would expect of him, but he's not the only one at the top of his game. Emile Hirsh's adorable activist Cleve Jones is funny and inspiring, and James Franco's tortured boy toy Scott Smith is disarmingly charming and heartbreaking.
As the man who shot Milk and Mayor George Moscone in cold blood, Dan White (played by Josh Brolin) is equal parts a heart-on-his-sleeve family man and an enigmatic figure, slowing unhinging from…from…from what? Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (recreating a life and era with an assured hand) and Van Sant don't delve too deeply into White's motivations—it's a tactic that Van Sant boldly used in the Columbine-inspired Elephant—and I think it works. The murders seem as senseless and inexplicable today as they did 30 years ago, and any attempt to "understand" them would only serve to justify White's light conviction—he was imprisoned for mere "manslaughter" and was released after only five years.
• I think Milk is Gus Van Sant's best movie since 1989's terrific Drugstore Cowboy—and that's saying a lot, considering he's made ten features since. Arty types like to complain about the schematic nature of biopics, but I have never minded their predictable structure. For me, it's all about learning more about the person being profiled, and this film certainly delivers, filling in my gaps of knowledge about Milk, the gay rights movement in the 1970s, the inner workings of city politics, and the early days of the Castro, San Francisco's gay district, where I used to live and love.
But the movie also boasts Van Sant's artful vision, combining actual news reports, archival footage, recreated photographs, and documentary-like filmmaking, a collage of styles that suggests the delirious nature of memory.
• Much of the movie focuses on the battle against 1978's Proposition 6, a California measure that aimed to fire teachers suspected of being gay—and those who supported them. That fight, of course, has eerie parallels to the current battle over Proposition 8 and gay marriage. And there's much to learn from Harvey Milk and his crusade. A telling scene is when Milk is caught in an ideological argument with his peers, opponents of Proposition 6. The anti-6 campaign wants to send out vague literature that approaches the issue with abstract equal-rights terminology, not once mentioning that it is a struggle about gay civil liberties. Milk accuses the closeted tactics as being misguided and very pointedly demands that gay faces and gay voices become part of the campaign.
To Milk, coming out was an act of tremendous political and social power. He was not naive enough to think that those who would discriminate against gays would change overnight, but he was convinced that if they knew we existed—as their friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors—it would be enough to give them pause. And it is within those pauses that we can speak up, be heard, and demand that we be treated like everybody else.
• Um, in case you missed it after all these years of blogging: I AM GAY. I AM GAY. I AM GAY.