Wednesday, February 25, 2009
If you can't stand George W Bush (and who can these days?) it's not exactly fun spending 129 minutes with him, or at least an imagined version of him. W is a claustraphobic account of the making of the 43rd president of the USA, an account for which the phrase 'the banality of evil' might have been coined. Director Oliver Stone, well known for his biopics of Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy, rushed the film out before the November 2008 election, wanting to hand voters a history of the Bush presidency just in time.
The film begins with George W as a hard-drinking undergraduate at Yale. His destructive alcoholic tendencies escalate and he fails to capitalise on the attempts of his father, Republican congressman George Bush senior, to bail him out of trouble and find him a suitable career. He meets his saintly wife Laura and decides to run for the Texas governorship. He turns to God and gives up drinking. His father becomes US president and declares war on Iraq when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait.
The film flashes back and forth between this narrative and the lead-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. It's essentially a story of a father and son, portraying W's rise as a doomed attempt to please the patriarchal George Bush senior.
To its credit Stanley Weiser's screenplay sticks to this narrative, leaving out Bush's other policy stuff-ups, including his crimes against America's poor. But inevitably the scenes in which the administration secretively thrashes out foreign policy in darkened rooms after the September 11 attacks are telescoped and therefore way too simplistic, with the players boldly articulating their hidden agendas, plans and beliefs for the audience's easy digestion. A more subtle approach would have been more effective but the film is obviously aimed at a mass audience.
The moral of this film might be: if someone has power, money and influence, their pathologies and weaknesses are likely to be highly damaging. Possibly this personalises the story too much, but right from the start Stone places George W in the thick of the US establishment.
In an early scene he's being subjected to an abusive initiation ritual in one of Yale's most prestigious fraternity houses. But he avoids the worst because he's able to reel off so many of the older fraternity brothers' names, and he happily relates the past generations of his family who have been members before him.
It's a deeply ironic moment because his memory here is brilliant and gets him out of trouble. It also shows us that he's good with people, and most at ease when he's roistering and playing the bad son. It's when Bush starts to play the good son that the trouble starts.
W has been shot in a moody, low-key fashion that in a cliched way parallels Bush's inner 'darkness', belying the overly cheerful exterior. Constant close-ups of his squinting visage make the viewer feel as if they are in his head, not exactly an enlightened or fascinating place to be.
And this is the film's shortcoming: we see so much through Bush's eyes only, with just occasional glimpses of the huge scale of the tragedy his enormous stupidity unleashed. Although that's not entirely true: there's one scene in which he is confronted with the casualties of war, and he's predictably, almost horrifyingly, oblivious.
The film fills in valuable detail about the political ascent that led to Bush's presidency and reminds us of the doomed search for WMD as a justification for the Iraq War. It also suggests that if Bush was intellectually grossly unsuitable for the job, he did have genuine political skills.
Like Reagan he was able to present simple messages and stark dichotomies (good against evil; right against wrong) in a way the average person could relate to. And although it's not in the film, it's easy to forget just how the media warmed to Bush's hail-fellow-well-met persona and scurrilously misrepresented Al Gore during the 2000 election campaign, even down to the likes of lefty feminist Maureen Dowd.
A friend who accompanied me remarked that it might be too early for a film like this to be made, and that for this reason the acting could offer little more than caricatures of familiar figures. I partly agree: the portrayal of Condoleezza Rice was fairly appalling, with Thandie Newton giving her a stiff, Barbie Doll-like gait, a permanently craning neck and an ironic half-smile that hardly wavered.
But is it too early? The links between the First Gulf War -- unfinished in the eyes of George W and his powerbrokers -- and Saddam's fall 12 years later are rarely referred to by our shortsighted media. As well, a film dramatising events that are still recent will have an immediacy that more distanced accounts would struggle to achieve.
To its credit, the film is economical in its implied critique of American jingoism. The patriotic and folksy jingles that erupt strategically on the soundtrack suggest that Bush's narcissism is a product of his country's, and that the USA's founding myths leave it susceptible to delusional beliefs about its role in the world.
Josh Brolin, who plays George W, was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in Milk. His star is on the rise and I can't see how this portrayal could hurt him. At times his expressions -- way too pleased with himself or confused and out of his depth -- are uncannily Bush-like, although sometimes there's an intensity that Bush just wasn't capable of.
It was a pleasant surprise to see two old hands prove they've still got what it takes -- Ellen Burstyn is very much the matriarch as Barbara Bush, W's mother, while Richard Dreyfuss finesses a disturbingly cool Dick Cheney. Bush Senior is played by James Cromwell; of all the protagonists he looks least like the original but this helps to distinguish him from W. He's entirely sober, industrious, politic, and deeply disturbed by his son's political ambitions. And rightly so.
Verdict: politically relevant but boring -- wait for the DVD
Friday, February 20, 2009
Each year the Monash University Museum of Art holds an exhibition solely devoted to aspects of the collection. This year, the Museum asked four artists to curate their own mini-exhibition of works in the collection: Stephen Bram, Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, and Juan Davila.
Three rooms, three discrete exhibitions, three separate explorations of the kinds of work that might inform the artist(s), reflect an aspect of their practice or the kind of work they most admire. As the museum itself suggests, the results can be viewed as installations of the artists and indeed the placement of the chosen works in the three spaces is particularly vital to each project.
Stephen Bram uses his introductory text not so much to disrupt the idea of an explanatory note by the artist as to use it to demonstrate what he wants art to do. It's a possibly imagined exchange between Bram and a presumed therapist about his difficulties with writing his explanatory piece for the exhibition. It's gently self-deprecating and gives an introduction to the processes enacted in his exhibition.
Elsewhere Bram has said something to the effect that he wants viewers of his art to consider the relationship between the artwork and the space outside and around it. Many of the works that he has chosen enact such a confrontation.
Three of the works overtly privilege text, refusing to see it as the 'other' of art and seeming to use text to push the viewer back into her own imagination and contemplation of the artwork and the world.
Ian Burn's 'Undeclared glasses' features dense black text on a cream background under glass. The text considers the difference between merely seeing something and apprehending it, challenging us to think about this distinction at the same time as we are busy trying to interpret the meaning of the artwork as a whole.
Mutlu Cerkez's 'Ah hi I'm (21 November 2021)' confronts with its bold, pared-down conception of the words people use to describe themselves and their desires to potential lovers in a commodifed world. It reveals a cliched yet hazy version of the self that the white capital letters on a dark, painted background render as unashamed announcement/advertisement but it's humorous in its total lack of subtlety.
The work that seems to speak most directly to Bram's is John Dunkley-Smith's 'Perspectives for conscious alterations in everyday life #5'. This consists of a dense series of linear geometric forms rendered in pencil, endlessly overlaying each other. This work deals with issues of geometry, the act of looking at art, and perspective -- a kind of meta-art -- and this is also what Bram explores in the work of his included in the exhibition, 'Untitled', in which painted geometric forms dramatically indicate perspective to suggest architectural and spacial forms.
Also noteworthy is John Nixon's 'Untitled' 1987-1992 and 2003-2006. These works consist of a series of minimalist collages, neatly laid out on a grey trestle table, that combine plain coloured paper, personal mementoes and vintage advertising, including German advertising headlines.
The collages quietly celebrates order, pattern and colour while breaking down divisions between pure art and the lived experience of the commercialised world. Because of their horizontal positioning we are forced to examine them as 'artifacts' rather than art on a wall.
Burchill and McCamley's exhibition has a (non-exclusive) interest in feminist art practice. Perhaps the most outstanding works in this collection are the 25 large photographic prints that comprise Tracey Moffat's series 'Up in the sky'.
These dramatic black-and-white pictures represent a Stolen Generations narrative, with absences that the viewer herself must fill in. The photographs capture moments of transcendence and exuberance in harsh rural settings. Many of them reflect a poverty and sense of disconnection from the earth that seem to diminish the spirit but the subjects are never entirely lost in the impersonal, sometimes dominant skies that feature in the overwhelmingly outdoor settings.
Burchill and McCamley asked a colleague, Paul Bai, to comment on the existing work of theirs included in the exhibition, 'X table', a treated poplar table in an elongated 'X' shape that, with its oval and round holes with silver- and blue-coloured inner rims, appears to jokingly resist any call to practicality. Bai comments ironically on this non-commercial surface by strategically placing on it a cash register paper roll and ruler.
Another quietly stunning work is Jacky Redgate's 'Untitled' 1990 '[From Anonymous (probably Daguerre or Niepce de Saint-Victor) table prepared for a meal, c. 1829]'. This installation/model, featuring crafted objects supposedly set up to be photographed, seems to celebrate the aesthetics of space, form and composition within the still life genre.
Juan Davila's is the most self-consciously thematic of the three exhibitions. He considers that the museum is a storehouse of memory and his chosen collection presents images of Melbourne by a wide range of artists, many of them canonic.
These works are closely grouped together on one wall while his own work, 'A panorama of Melbourne', runs down the entire length of the opposite side, in a dialogue with the group. The work, a silk screen on paper, features a series of historical depictions of a changing Melbourne, including the dispossession of Indigenous people, and ending with a city whose main raison d'etre is a techologically based commercialism.
There is a move both in the grouped works and Davila's 'Panorama' away from the human scale and the idea of human habitation to something much larger, abstract and alienating -- a megalopolis, with corresponding suburbs that Davila describes as 'dormitories lacking any support facilities'. The exhibition shows not just different versions of Melbourne, but different Melbournes, some lost for good.
Pehaps the most obviously outstanding of the grouped works is Howard Arkley's iconic 'Family home -- suburban exterior', the bungalow's bright cartoonish exterior suggesting optimism but also sinister secrets hidden behind the brick veneer. Jane Burton's haunting photograph 'I did it for you' reveals the strange, alienating melancholy of the suburban home at dusk: the lights are on, but is anyone actually home?
Chris Barry's 'Nocturne 1' presents a cityscape that is eerily, preternaturally alive but devoid of humanity. Arthur Boyd's 'Wimmera landscape with hunter' presents a dried-out landscape that could be representative of Melbourne's current drought.
Wolfgang Sievers's three black-and-white photographs of Toorak properties portray architecture as art, suggesting that there's a cultural potential to Melbourne and the city in general that goes beyond commercial imperatives.
Other prominent artists represented here include Charles Blackman, Peter Booth, Noel Counihan, Bill Henson and Rosemary Laing.
Primary Views is an intellectual exhibition with strong conceptual elements, asking much of the viewer. It thinks about curatorship in new ways, and questions the idea of the artist as a fiercely individual entity forging her own path and seeking to outstrip her predecessors.
Primary Views is at the Monash University Museum of Art, Clayton campus, and runs until 28 March.
Photo: Christian Capurro
Saturday, February 14, 2009
This film, directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and starring Kate Winslet (his wife) as Leonardo DiCaprio, has been widely described as a bit of a dud, failing to elicit sympathy for the characters or involvement in their melodramatic conflict. But the film is best understood as a fable of sexual politics elevated to the level of Greek tragedy.
In telling its tale of oppressed female energy and confused masculinity, Revolutionary Road makes full use of 1950s Cold War conformity as a suitable social setting. It also strives to make such a tale universal and thus relevant to the social and economic confusions and contradictions of the noughties. And in doing so -- I've almost finished my sweeping summary of this film's grand ambitions -- it inevitably comments on the nature, status and functions of melodrama.
Winslet plays April Wheeler, a failed actress married to Frank, who has a boring marketing job at Knox, a company that makes 'business machines'. They live in a beautiful house in a picturesque Connecticut suburb, having settled there after a steamy meeting at a bohemian inner city party where Frank spots April across a smoky room and they eagerly discuss their artistic ambitions.
Now they have two children and are considered by their friends to be the 'it' couple, but both feel stifled by their narrow, artistically restricted lives and the social conformity of the era. Then April hatches a radical plan -- why not move to Paris to live? She could support her husband by working as a secretary while he freewheels, discovering what he really wants to do.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Richard Yates. It brings together two stars who demonstrated a marvellous rapport in the steamroller success that was the film Titanic. Winslet and DiCaprio are comfortable enough with each other to generate an acceptance of how two such different characters might love each other passionately.
I haven't read the book but it appears to focus much more on April's difficult background as the cause of her present troubles. But the film does the opposite: April is a universal woman caught in an impossible situation; by today's standards, her artistic ambitions seem modest. In contrast, Frank's relationship with his father becomes increasingly central to the growing conflict between them. This relationship and its implications are the keys to the film.
In one of the film's early scenes Frank descends the stairs of a subway surrounded by a herd of men all in near-identical fedoras, punctuated by a few primly dressed women and the scene, down to its muted light browns, is sharply reminiscent of John Brack's 1955 painting 'Collins St, 5p.m'. But in fact Frank is on the way up, and his casual approach to his dull job produces a creative spurt that leads to the offer of a promotion. It is at this point that the viewpoints of April and Frank begin to diverge, and the sexual politics become paramount.
The often-extreme political repression that characterised 1950s America is never directly referred to but it dances around the edges of the film, the unacknowledged corollary of the appeal to conformity. China became communist in 1949, and the growing threat of nuclear war escalated the tension between the USA and the reviled Soviet Union.
The communist witchhunt of the McCarthy era is well known but what is almost unknown is the cruel and relentless pursuit of gays and lesbians in first government, and then general employment. They were barred from all federal employment by executive order and suspected gays and lesbians sacked; at one point more than 12 million workers 'faced loyalty-security investigations'. This policy bled through to state employment and companies with government contracts, while the police swooped on gay meeting places and conducted regular mass arrests: in the early 1950s the District of Columbia carried out more than 1000 in one year. (D'emilio, 'The homosexual menace: The politics of sexuality in Cold War America' in D'emilio, ed, Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University).
Why is this relevant to the film? In such an atmosphere the status of masculinity and the question of what constituted a man seemed to be vital to national security. Gays were characterised as vulnerable to blackmail and therefore the sharing of state secrets. Homosexuality weakened and threatened the boundaries of the state but it was also the enemy within: a conservative version of Freudianism posited homosexuality as deviant but also saw all men as possessing a degree of latent homosexuality.
Revolutionary Road is fascinated by the questions of manhood that preoccupied US suburbanites of the 1950s and it is the temptations of conventional masculinity that generate the conflict between April and Frank. Without giving too much away, Frank finds himself between two competing versions of masculinity: is it the taking on of male power and privilege, and the proving of one's heterosexual virility as provider and begetter of children? Or is it having the courage to refuse someone else's idea of one's vocation, and finding one's own bliss (to use modern terminology)? The question of whether a real man lets his wife support him, for example, is at the heart of Frank's uncertainty about their Paris plans.
In the film's continuing reference to Frank's father, who also worked at Knox but never had more than a lowly position, Mendes plays with Oedipal concerns, showing how Frank is tempted to both vindicate his father and beat him by securing a higher status. This preoccupation explains the fact that DiCaprio's character isn't that well modulated; he always seems on the edge of a self-righteous anger. In some ways, despite himself, Frank becomes the carrier of conventional values, not just their victim.
In fact, it is April who risks playing victim, for, as the film demonstrates, while there might be pay-offs for Frank in choosing conventional masculinity, conventional femininity would hold nothing for April, and the only alternative is madness.
The film is clearly feminist in this regard and its stunning cinematography (by Roger Deakins) is always studied, creating a hyperreality reminiscent of that other tribute to Douglas Sirk and the female melodrama, Far from Heaven. The lush autumnal tones of that film always framed the tragic heroine in an aesthetically appealing space, helping us to almost enjoy her pain and to understand why she could never fully rise above her circumstances.
In one of the final scenes in Revolutionary Road, Winslet's beauty is framed by a pale yellow, wistful, gentle morning sunlight that only highlights her inner turmoil. Mendes wants us to understand melodrama as essential to social and political concerns rather than as an artform that is inferior because it is considered feminine. (In keeping with the comparison to Far from Heaven, the immaculate fifties costumes are stunning and the interior of the Wheelers' house could have graced a home decoration magazine of the era.) The appeal to melodrama also helps to explain what has been criticised as an overly mannered performance by Winslet: it is meant to be.
The supports are mostly excellent. Michael Shannon has received an academy award nomination for his powerful portrayal of John, a mentally ill mathematician who is rudely truthful and the only character who understands the Wheelers' urge to flee. At some points in the film he seems to act as a Greek chorus, commenting frankly on their plans and motivations. Kathy Bates is a little predictable as John's mother, a needy real estate agent. And David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn both offer restrained contrast as the emotionally stifled neighbours willing to pay the price of conformity.
The score, by Thomas Newman, is restrained and faintly menacing, conventional in its signalling of the mood but not overly sentimental or intrusive.
What can the film offer us now? Is it even intended as social comment? Yes and no. Today, a radical ambition for some couples is to buy a modest house in some public transport-free outer suburb, while others build McMansions and strain their budgets to meet their mortgage payments. Status has never been more important, yet we are constantly told we have more lifestyle choices than ever before. In Australia, meanwhile, a convenient neglect of women's status means that it is actually drifting backwards, with the media gleefully 'helping' women with the double load of children and work while their husbands hold down jobs better suited to 1.5 people.
But the dilemma at the heart of Revolutionary Road -- how to retain creative freedom despite the conservatising forces of adult responsibility -- stark and simple as it is, is still highly relevant, and the gender issues, despite more reliable contraception, are still unresolved. The film forces us to ask ourselves: what are we doing with our lives? Whose agenda are we following? And what are the impacts on the spiritual and creative lives of women -- and men -- of the conventional scripts that capitalism and the nation state offer us?
Verdict: sombre, absorbing, relevant
Sunday, February 8, 2009
A group of friends, relatives and colleagues gather in a prosperous suburban home in Melbourne for a Saturday evening barbecue. Aisha, the daughter of an English mother and Indian father, and Hector, the son of Greek migrants, serve up a multicultural feast with the help of Hector's parents, Manolis and Koula. But the revelling comes to an abrupt end when a man slaps someone else's misbehaving child. The consequences of this event are huge and far reaching, splitting bonds and pitting friends and family members against each other.
Some of my responses to this book are inevitably personal. Like Tsiolkas I'm a Generation X-er, but I'm also a refugee from Melbourne's inner city, which many of my generation discovered when they went to Melbourne Uni or RMIT. This novel maps Melbourne suburbs, particularly the inner north, with a loving detail that one might usually ascribe to the city's crime writers.
With the same wide vista it maps the joys and ills of Generation X and just as significantly its children, whether they're in nappies or the throes of adolescence. It's rooted in place but in no way provincial. It's distinctly Melburnian in its adumbration of the multicultural nature of the city, where Lebanese, Jewish, Indian and Greek befriend each other, fall in love and negotiate each other's cultural legacies. In that sense Tsiolkas is a much more articulate voice for Generation X than is, say, Elliot Perlman, writer of the problematic Three Dollars.
Without trying to ghettoise Tsiolkas, his voice as the son of Greek migrants is a distinctive one. His first novel, Loaded, was characterised as 'grunge lit', while its anti-hero, Ali, was a member of an alienated generation caught between two cultures, both of which Ali held in contempt. The novel thus positioned itself against the mainstream.
But through the success of the novel and in his subsequent writing, including The Slap, Tsiolkas has helped to change the nature of mainstream Australian literature, showing how the migrant voice is part of the mainstream, and in doing so altering and problematising the meaning of 'mainstream' in Australian lit. In this way he has had an impact that could in some respects be compared to that of Garner's Monkey Grip, which shone a spotlight on inner-city Melbourne bohemians of the 1970s, changing the literary landscape forever.
There is an energy behind all of Tsiolkas's writing, a creative propulsion that makes his refusal to write beautiful sentences a virtue. He will never write sentences like Garner, as smooth as a worn pebble, but he doesn't want to. Tsiolkas's writing style is raw, rough around the edges, sometimes journalistic. He seeks to coolly describe the zeitgeist rather than to judge it:
Sandi was standing at the edge of the pool, her skin tanned a rich honey. She too was wearing a bikini, but whereas the girls' swimsuits had seemed sluttish and vulgar, his wife seemed to him to be as exquisite as the elegant European models on the covers of the magazines she read ... He looked up at her and regretted fantasising over the cheap floozies on the beach.Tsiolkas is alone among our writers in the extent of his ease with the body and its functions, its often unwelcome desires and betrayals. His characters live through their bodies and are never abstract. His microscopic knowledge of popular music and the drug and communication habits of young people, and his matter-of-fact descriptions of sexuality earth the novel, but the uncompromising picture of modern life, particularly our collective addiction to the screen, is sometimes bleak. Nevertheless there are frequent joyous experiences, revelations and breakthroughs.
I liked Tsiolkas's previous novel, Dead Europe, but felt claustrophobic being stuck in the head of the novel's main character, who was intense to say the least. The structure of The Slap -- innovative, simple and effective -- avoids this danger. Rather than trying to handle so many points of view at once Tsiolkas has divided the novel into eight sections, each told by an omniscient narrator but from the viewpoint of one of the individuals in the drama. This works well because the story moves on through the characters, that is, the same story isn't repeated endlessly and seen from different points of view. The only issue for me is that some interesting characters 'miss out' so we don't feel we know them as well.
The attempt to show so many facets of modern life is a real development for Tsiolkas as he refuses to be sidelined as a merely 'ethnic', gay or even political writer. His characters encompass a host of cultural backgrounds, ages, political standpoints and sexualities. He has said that he enjoyed the process of using his imagination to tell the story and here he revels in seeing the world through many eyes.
There's one thing that bothered me about the novel and my reaction to it is perhaps a function of Tsiolkas's refusal to judge his characters. The women in this novel who are mothers -- Aisha, Rosie and Sandi -- all seem to have a masochistic streak. And significantly, to various extents they are the most angry about the slap. I think Tsiolkas is attempting here to show us the lives of average women as they are lived rather than a feminist fantasy, but in doing so he risks essentialising some aspects of femininity such as the maternal urge and its social and political consequences.
For more recent book and film reviews, visit my new blog Feminist Culture Muncher!
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Harvey Milk burst onto the San Francisco political scene when the Watergate scandal propelled him to run for the role of city supervisor. After four years of unsuccessful campaigns he achieved victory in 1977, becoming the first openly gay man to win public office in California. While opposing homophobia he also built alliances with other minorities and supported the elderly, unions, public transport and education.
Along with Mayor Moscone he was fatally shot by a political rival, Dan White, in 1978, and the seven-year sentence White received -- he served only five years -- led to the infamous White Night Riots in San Francisco. Milk's memory has been lovingly preserved and there are a plaza, school and recreation centre named after him but his story is not widely known. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Junebug, Paranoid Park) bring that story vividly to the screen in the biopic Milk.
Rather than trying to cover Milk's entire life, Black has wisely chosen to start the story with Milk turning 40, meeting his partner Scott Smith and fleeing New York for San Francisco where they open a camera store in the famous 'gay ghetto' known as the Castro. From there we experience the major political stepping stones that led to Milk's election to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977. However, the film is bookended with scenes of a tired Milk sitting alone in his kitchen, hunched over a tape recorder and describing his political ascent, believing that sooner or later the assassin's bullet will find him.
The Stonewall riots that many believe kicked off Gay Liberation had only taken place in 1969 and in the 1970s a repressive police force targeted gay men and tolerated gay bashings. This had helped to fuel Milk's activism, and as a businessowner in the Castro he was one of the first to understand the power of the pink dollar.
Interwoven with Milk's campaigns and their aftermath is the story of a vicious religious-right reaction to Gay Liberation. All over the USA, the religious right, led by the singer Anita Bryant, spearheaded a series of referendums to repeal enlightened state legislation that banned discrimination against gays in employment and housing. In California, this resulted in the sinister Proposition 6, which would have outlawed gay people teaching in the state's public schools.
At the end of the day, this is a conventionally structured biopic with a strong emphasis on the politics. I was heartened and saddened by the story, and left with the feeling that I had seen a good film rather than a great one. I think this is because so much of the focus is on Milk and his political trajectory, with the growing anger and political energy of San Francisco gays as the main backdrop: and while Milk's courage and persistence are extraordinary, he is in many ways lovably ordinary.
Prior to the assassination Milk's killer, Dan White, had resigned as city supervisor but unsuccessfully requested his job back. The angry gay community had no doubt that the verdict of manslaughter and low sentence he received were due to homophobia. White went on to commit suicide two years after his release from prison and the film's slant on his motives for the murder may be controversial.
The acting is exemplary. Sean Penn, who stars as Milk, has been nominated for an Academy Award. No wonder -- he appears to channel Milk rather than play him. Straight men playing gay men don't always get it right, sometimes exhibiting a macho intensity that feels repressive. In contrast, Penn relaxes into the sharp but easygoing character Milk seems to have been, a personable, compassionate guy with political brilliance and nerves of steel.
Emile Hirsch is unrecognisable but excellent as a young supporter of Milk's, Cleve Jones, in huge aviator sunglasses and what looks like a curly wig. James Franco is sweet and easygoing as Milk's long-term lover, Scott Smith. Alison Pill is effective but too cutesy as the lesbian campaign manager who helps to spearhead his eventual victory.
Unashamed nostalgia is one of the film's main strengths, and who wouldn't be nostalgic for a time, before the scourge of AIDS, when a new liberation movement, inspired by the recent success of the civil rights movement, believed it could transform human society? Huge moustaches, tight T-shirts, bouffy hairstyles and unrenovated, brightly painted interiors help to evoke the carefree mood and out-there sexuality of the Castro, epicentre of the emerging gay identity in the 1970s -- an identity that, as the film shows so well, was becoming increasingly politicised.
Jones, a consultant on the film, has said that he and his friends knew they were doing something new, and the excitement, euphoria and sense of sexual freedom all shine through, despite the continuing discrimination. The scenes of spontaneous, angry nighttime demonstrations are enough to make any left-liberal heart swell.
Milk believed that there was huge power to be gained from all gays coming out both in the home and at work, refusing to cooperate in the culture of fear that kept them hidden (in one scene, in front of a crowd of supporters, he orders a friend to ring his father and come out to him). His life is a shining testament to this belief.
Verdict: Well worth seeing