So we did the traditional American Jewish Christmas thing yesterday: Chinese food and a movie. This custom, of course, originated because most Jews have 12/25 off in this mostly Christian country and in this mostly Christian country the only places that are open on 12/25 in many cities and towns are Chinese restaurants and movie theatres. That was true in the area I mostly grew up in: Hartford, Connecticut. It's very much not the case in New York City in the early twenty-first century, but I like being a traditionalist sometimes. So vickifelder and her daughter and Zara and I went off to see Milk and then eat some Chinese food.
My New Year's Resolution for 2008 had been to see more movies and I failed at it miserably. Unless I'm forgetting one, this was only the sixth movie I've seen this year. But it was a great one! Sean Penn makes an amazing Harvey Milk. He clearly studied films of him carefully - he moves like him, sounds like him. The makeup is extensive - it's clearly not Sean Penn's nose but Harvey's - but it's his whole body that is transformed.
The film plunges you into a time and place not so unlike our own, with great attention to detail and, for the most part, great accuracy. Real news footage is skillfully blended with the film itself to give a sense of events that are really happening. I spent a lot of time in San Francisco just a few years after these events took place and it's very much the city I know and love.
Milk tells an overarching public story of the emergence of gay rights as a political issue in this country and of the role that Harvey Milk's life and his tragic death had in that rise. At the same time it tells a very personal story of a real, flawed, but ultimately noble hero who had the courage and developed the skills to bring our cause to the political arena. I was struck at least as much by his failures as his successes - he ran for office again and again, losing each time but learning real lessons from each loss and building on them. He had barely a year in office. If he had not been struck down, where might he be now?
Although, as the title suggests, this is very much Harvey's story, the supporting characters are not in any way given short shrift. They are fully realized and, to a man (and one woman) beautifully acted. The complicated political and personal relationship between Harvey and his murderer is portrayed in a realistic and compelling manner. The city of San Francisco in all its physical beauty, cultural turmoil, and complicated political alliances is almost another character in the film, as vivid as a human one. There are some minor inaccuracies in the film and at times it falls off the edge into bathos, as in a repeated scene of Harvey joking on his fortieth birthday that he'll never see fifty. But these are minor quibbles. This is a wonderful, moving, enlightening film well worth watching.
I'm annoyed that it got an R rating. There is little in the way of either nudity or sex, and what is there is very discreet. A film with comparable amounts of flesh, sexual content, and strong language but with a heterosexual theme would undoubtedly be PG-13. We've still got a long way to go.
And OMG, I turned into one of those horrible people who talk in movies and didn't even know it. I was explaining historical context to Zara and answering questions she was asking and I thought we were being quiet enough that no one else would hear and then this guy right in front of me turned around and said, "Can you wait until after the movie to talk?" I was so mortified! I apologized quickly and we were very careful after that. Then when Harvey gets killed Vicki started crying, out loud. I thought this guy was going to kill us, but he actually didn't do anything then. And when the movie was over I apologized to him again, explaining that I was trying to help my daughter understand and that I had thought I was quiet enough not to bother anyone and he was very gracious.
I need a movie icon! Since I don't have one, I'll go with my New York Winter icon.