Saturday, February 21, 2009

THE NIGHT BEFORE OSCAR. I never did get around to seeing more of the Academy Award nominated films, but I made some predictions anyway at Runnin' Scared, on the principle that ignorance is no more a disqualification than it is an excuse.

I did see Milk, and I thought it was good, though it's further evidence for my observation that, when it comes to biopics, the best ones either are mediocre or transcend the genre. But Harvey Milk's story is so fascinating that I was content to see it played straight, as it were, by Gus Van Sant in his Hollywood mode.

Some of the acting is very fine. Despite ample screen time James Franco, alas, barely registers as the boyfriend, and Victor Garber is eternally Victor Garber, an important man in a suit. But Josh Brolin's Dan White is frighteningly plausible as a successful small-time family-values politician wrapped tight enough to snap, Diego Luna gives some neurotic spin to the other boyfriend, and Emile Hirsch has the heedless, new-in-town gay-hooker vibe down cold, and shows enough intelligence to explain his transformation into a political lieutenant.

Penn is of course terrific, not only in his inspired mimicry of Milk, who was wrapped pretty tight himself, but also in showing the grace notes -- I suppose we should call them graceless notes -- of Milk as a politician. It's to his credit and the film's that we sometimes see Milk being a smiling shit in pursuit of his agenda. (This also helps motivate White's explosion.) Politics ain't beanbag, and if the movie has a message beyond Wasn't He Great, it's that idealists don't win without doing hard and occasionally nasty work. By noting this without making much of it, Milk suggests something bracing about the morality of doing bad things for a greater good, which many other films worry over: of course it's right, now go change the world. Milk isn't in the same class as Army of Shadows, but it shares some of the Melville film's clarity on that score, which pleasantly surprised me.

At its worst the film tediously fills in the historical record, in the classic manner of biographies like Gandhi ("You know what Churchill says about Gandhi? He calls him a half-naked fakir!") and indulges in bathetic gestures, like the rendering of Milk's death, both in the story (I really don't get the opera theme, except as a gay signifier out of Philadelphia) and in documentary footage at the intro -- which I immediately took for an awful, cheap shot that makes you cry if you remember that horrible event without the film having done a lick of work to justify such a response. Later this is revealed as a framing device -- you see the candles moving down the street again at the end, when presumably the audience will have a new perspective on the scene. But I didn't feel its significance. Maybe that's because the intro repelled me, or maybe it's because Van Sant really isn't much of a director and can't make such large formal gestures work. So Milk isn't great, but on its limited terms it does just fine.

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