05 December 2008

A Film Worth Crying About

When the credits to Gus Van Sant's Milk ended I literally wanted to pitch forward and sob. This is quite something for a man imbued with an icy Finnish reserve. As it was I settled for being a bit teary eyed.

How did the movie have such a profound effect on me?

For one thing its non fiction. There is far more power to stories that depict actual events. Simply, the knowledge that Harvey Milk was a real person who was struck down tragically, is far more compelling than Jack fading into the ocean at the end of Titanic -- at least for me.

But the main character of a film dying, particularly when you are well aware of his fate in advance, isn't necessarily enough to choke one up in and of itself. This story also included a pitch perfect performance by Sean Penn in the title role. If Harvey Milk's ghost didn't inhabit Penn's body and soul during filming then Penn has taken his craft to a new level.

A great portrayal like Penn's adds immeasurably to the drama, but that too is not enough. You need a director at the top of his game to bring the whole scope of this amazing story to life. Van Sant was up to the task. His occasional blending of real footage was excellent, particularly at the end when he showed the massive candle light march through San Francisco following Milk's death. This scene alone can make a grown man cry.

But still something else is needed. Importance. This is a story that has resonance to many of us for a variety of reasons. One is that we remember Harvey Milk and his times. (His election to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977 made him the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. His murder, along with SF Mayor George Moscone in November 1978 made him martyr. Before this he was already well established as the "Mayor of Castro Street" the largely gay section of San Francisco.)

Finally this is a film that tells one chapter in the story of the ongoing struggle towards equality for all Americans. Given the step back taken by the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California, Milk is a reminder of how great progress can be realized. Gay rights is one of the last major battle fronts in the war against intolerance and bigotry.

On a more personal level Milk helped me again confront the homophobia that I grew up with back in a time when homosexuality wasn't talked about let alone condoned. To make clear that you embrace your gay brothers and sisters is one thing, not being uncomfortable when two men kiss on screen is another ( I admit it and I'm not proud of it, I was uncomfortable during every kiss).

So let's see here. We've got a transcendent acting performance in the starring role of a well-told story about a struggle for equal rights in the recent past with relevance to today some of it on a personal level. Little wonder that I was so touched.

And you now what, I haven't even gotten to how great the rest of the cast such as Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco were.

Every once in awhile a film comes along that reminds me why I love movies. Oh sure, I've got many of them on DVD that I can watch at my convenience but to discover one at the theater is special. You always remember your first time with a great film. There, I said it, Milk is a great film. And if I was more of a man maybe I would have really pitched forward and sobbed.

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