Any friend of this blog will know that I almost universally hate biopics. As I’ve complained in my reviews of Control, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and even Walk Hard, I believe that the feature film is fundamentally ill suited for biography. One seemingly minor lesson from college that wound up sticking with me is Edgar Allen Poe’s definition of the short story as a prose piece that can be experienced in a single sitting (The Philosophy of Composition, 1846). No one expects a serious portrait of a person’s entire life in a few pages, so why should we applaud a movie? The feature film’s two-hour running time is more akin to a short story than to a book-length novel or biography, and yet the biopic is a dominant genre in movies. I would argue the primary reason is that they give ambitious actors the opportunity to exercise their imitation skills. It pleases audiences who perceive “true stories” as being of greater merit than fiction (mere make-believe!), and pandering to the Academy, who love nothing better than a technically impressive mimicry of an addict or handicapped person. I actually welcomed Walk Hard, for although a terrible movie itself, it finally mocked the formulaic drug-addicted musician biopics Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie En Rose, and El Cantante.
Director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black’s Milk, on the other hand, strikes me as less insincere than its peers. For one thing, it examines only a ten-year span of a man’s life, avoiding the genre’s usual Cliff’s Notes-like approach to summarizing a famous figure’s life into a series of highlights. And yes, Sean Penn did win an Oscar for a lively, spirited performance worlds apart from his natural demeanor. But I believe he, like everyone else involved, approached the project with nothing but the highest integrity, and truly hoped the timely project could affect public opinion.
Milk was in theaters
during shortly after the national debate over California’s Proposition 8, which denied the right to marry to a significant portion of the population (thanks to commenter Sapphocrat below for the correction). It’s impossible to miss the parallels to Harvey Milk’s struggle in 1978 against Proposition 6, which would have enabled the firing of homosexual teachers and (this is the truly amazing part) anyone that supported them. One of the movie’s biggest achievements is that it emphasized the sheer urgency of the gay rights movement. Equality was not just something that’s time had come. Gays were not only fighting for rights they hoped some day to have; they were fighting to keep the what rights they did have from being taken away.
I must admit that all I knew about Harvey Milk was the tangential bit of trivia that his assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin) was the first to employ the infamous “Twinkie Defense” in court, claiming that a diet of junk food altered his body chemistry and created a temporary state of insanity. Harvey was originally a New York insurance man, closeted from coworkers and family, but not so much so that he couldn’t brazenly pick up a stranger on the subway (with gaydar so fine-tuned that he could immediately tell that what I would assume to a normal-looking dude in 70s fashions was a fellow Friend of Dorothy). Scott Smith (James Franco) urges him to move to California where he can live more honestly. Harvey initially is happy to just live his new life, but becomes politicized as he faces prejudicial opposition to his small business.
Although it may seem to contradict part of my tirade against biopics at the beginning on this post, it might have been illuminating to see a little more of Harvey as a younger man, before he blossomed into a politically aware, out man. We only learn through passing dialogue that he hid not only his sexuality but even Scott’s very existence from his family. If the aim was to compress the essence of Harvey Milk into a short-form narrative, it strikes me that the major dramatic arc would be his transformation from a closeted man into someone that would later ask an entire community to come out at once.