"Milk" is a difficult film to isolate. On one hand, it is an opera; an often beautiful tragedy full of performances just so amplified that they are big without being unbelievable. On the other, it is a story of our own historicity; all events condensed, admittedly skewed, and toned with hindsight that says, This is how we have come to remember Harvey Milk's story. This is what we have made of the past, and we tell it to you now reflected in the silver of a whistle, orbed through mirrors, with one eye always on the symbols that the players have become.
These characters and their fates -- murder, suicide, suicide, repression, shame, hope -- are shaped by this self-consciousness. I find myself choked up not entirely because of Sean Penn's performance, though he surely helps. It is the story, and how we remember it, that signals so much of the emotion infused in the current gay rights battle, and the current election. I watch the movie and think about how elated and disappointed I was on November 4th. I relate intimately with the almost cartoonish depiction of gay-hating Orange County. I think how much I don't want religion to be the defining factor in the repressed rights of millions of normal people, and how, unfortunately, it is. I worry about our guy facing the same fate as Milk. And it scares the shit out of me. This movie ... this movie is hard to isolate.
(Harris Savides is also the cinematographer of "Birth," which I really liked)
Much of "Milk" is spent watching Harvey in front of a microphone, appealing to crowds both sympathetic and hostile, so it is easy, as an audience member, to feel the kind of meta-emotion mentioned above. We watch an audience watch Harvey and gauge our reaction against their's. Or, if there isn't an audience around, Harris Savides's camera perches itself at the distance of the front row from the stage. Gus Van Sant blocks his players theatrically, and this is his most subtle, and probably most effective, nod to the audience. The story, and the whole biopic genre, is an attempt to structure events of the past to mean something to the present, and Van Sant uses the theater to provide this structure. In doing so, he aligns himself with the big picture -- the gay rights movement both past and present, the spot in which we stand in history, and where the film may point us.
Skeptics of Van Sant, or Sean Penn, or gay rights (or all three) will see the movie as proselytizing. There is, of course, an argument to be made for this. When a drunk and stumbling Diego Luna arrives on Harvey's doorstep, Harvey still speaks in big, sweeping themes. "Let me help you," he says, as he picks Jack Lira up off the ground. "Lean on me." This is definitely not the specificity-will-birth-universality approach to storytelling. It is decidedly top down, big to small. The film becomes less about the characters and more about their symbolic weight to us. After all, as Harvey himself says of his campaign: he is only a person; it is the movement that is the candidate.
But, even with its performance and theatrics, "Milk" can be the best kind of Hollywood movie. It can give you a lense, obligatorily refracted as it may be, to focus the larger issues of the coming years. It can make you look inward and ask how or why you believe what you believe, and it can make you look outward and ask if you are doing all you can to create an inclusive community. But only if you let it. With all of its grandiosity, only if you let it.