If there is one kind of film I categorically loathe it is blatant Oscar bait. The Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season is jam packed with such films annually. Yes, there are some truly great films released during the month or two before the Academy picks a crop of winners, and many films that win Oscars are in fact deserving of recognition. But there are also ham-fisted, cynical efforts churned out by studios lacking a "serious" film upon which awards can be bestowed and hoping that sentimental tripe involving handicapped people or people imprisoned/wrongly accused of crimes will do the trick. Some of the worst offenders include cinematic vomit like I Am Sam, The Green Mile, Pay It Forward, Love in the Time of Cholera, or The Life of David Gale.
In recent years, though, the criteria for individual acting Oscar-bait has slightly broadened. It now encompasses not only Convict or the Handicapped but also Gay. Boys Don't Cry and Brokeback Mountain both softened up the Academy to the point that we can now annually expect some Very Serious Film from some Very Shitty Studio about a heroic, slightly messianic LGBT Character who, from the studio's perspective, preferably gets murdered. In a couple years I fully expect to see one of the fucking Jonas Brothers starring in The Matthew Shepard Story.
I guess by this point you can tell that I am not going to be watching Milk for a number of reasons. First, Sean Penn's face looks like an ape's puckered red asshole. Second, Mr. Penn cannot act to save his soul and has already stolen an Oscar for the revolting Mystic River. Third, the story of Harvey Milk, American Hero and Martyr, delightfully tiptoes around the fact that the Great Man owed much credit for his election to Jim Jones and the People's Temple, an organization that Milk spent his elected career protecting and enthusiastically supporting.
The excellent PBS production Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple details how Reverend Jim's flock provided thousands of person-hours of labor to the campaigns of Milk, Moscone, and then-Assemblyman Willie Brown, later the mayor of San Fran. Some sources go as far as to credit the Temple's three thousand registered voters for being directly responsible for Milk's electoral success in 1976.
In return Milk regularly spoke glowingly of the Temple and spoke at public rallies with the Reverend in addition to regular columns in the Peoples Forum, the cult's newspaper. He was no mere opportunistic politician, as many of his biographers attempt to depict him if they mention the issue at all, but a personal devotee of Jones. After one Temple visit he wrote a personal letter to Jones stating,
Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.
On the evening before Jones was to be exposed by investigative journalist Marshall Kilduff of the Chronicle, the Reverend and his flock fled the long arm of the law into the jungles of Guyana. Political allies sprinted away from Jones like rats on a sinking ship. Not Milk, though. He wrote a letter to Jimmy Carter protesting the government's investigations into the Temple and its leader, a "man of the highest character." Of the relatives working with Congressman Leo Ryan (soon to be murdered in Guyana) Milk wrote that they were opportunists attempting to "damage (Jones') reputation with bald-faced lies." Within a few months Ryan, Milk, and nearly everyone in Jonestown would be dead, all for very different reasons.
Harvey Milk was obviously a brave man, someone who did as all individuals should do. He proudly stood up for himself and refused to accept second-class treatment or apologize for who he was. He drew attention with both his life and his death to the shoddy, often violent treatment that gay and lesbian people receive at the hands of the police, elected officials, and garden variety bigots. I applaud Gus Van Sant and the film for making even one viewer think about homophobia, discrimination, and the violence it inspires.
What I can't swallow is the lack of context, the rush to canonize Milk the Character to make the film a more appealing slice of Oscar bait. A film that purports to tell the true story of a man should not feel free to edit out the parts that get in the way of tear-harvesting the audience. The film certainly follows the pack, though. An exhibit at the Gay Historical Society is unironically called "Saint Harvey." A decent author or filmmaker can handle a three-dimensional character, one who is a bastard sometimes in addition to being heroic. Shitty filmmakers have to rely on hackneyed caricatures who either parade around in glowing halos or are comically evil.