Otto von Bismarck noted that if you enjoy laws and sausages, never watch how they’re made. Milk gets that — it’s a smart, unsentimental portrait of urban politics as a messy process of confrontation and compromise, shouted threats and whispered agreements. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black fits in a series of moments that show Milk in action — flattering Teamsters, reaching out to hippies, taking advantage of redistricting. When Milk wants to get out the vote for a gay rights initiative he’s put before the people, he also puts a poop-and-scoop law on the same ballot — and taps into a vast reservoir of irritated city-dwellers. Penn playing Milk in a TV news piece on the poop-and-scoop problem is a subtle standout; he’s goofy, hammy and endearing for the camera, and as you watch, you get a brief, brisk demonstration of Milk’s theory that politics is theater.
Directed by Gus Van Sant, Milk is smart in a hundred tiny ways that add up to real brilliance. Van Sant shot Milk on a low budget, but totally recreates ’70s San Francisco — and the use of stock footage and news reports doesn’t feel like cost-cutting, but instead sets the tone and tenor of the battles Milk was fighting and the places where he made his stand. Josh Brolin, as Milk’s assassin Dan White, is a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination; White is a killer, but we also get a sense of him as a person. And Penn (who Oscar will also nod to, guaranteed) is exceptional, giving an impressively physical performance; watch Penn’s hands — tentative, twitchy, fidgety — and you realize that Harvey Milk’s whole career, and whole life, was a conscious act of will as he made himself go out into the spotlight, and the firing zone, over and over again. Is Milk a gay story? Sure, but it’s also a human one — and, considering how many people find those ideas to be contradictory even now, it’s a necessary one.
Also Worth Seeing in a Theater Near You
Four Christmases is not great comedy, but insofar as it gives Vince Vaughan a chance to stammer, yammer and talk like a crazy person, I was laughing. Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon are a yuppie couple dealing with four family visits in one day; the plot’s almost irrelevant, but Vaughn’s like a jazz musician blowing wild, crazy solos out of a pretty familiar melody.