Saturday, January 31, 2009

Two great movies, Milk and Frost/Nixon

Both films focus on 1977-78. I was busy being born at the time, so I really didn't know much about this period in American history. Both are wonderful and worth checking out in the theater.

Milk follows the career of
Harvey Milk, San Francisco's popular and openly gay city supervisor. Sean Penn gives a tremendous performance, achieving both likability as well as a growing confidence on the part of the protagonist. Ironically, the more powerful Milk becomes, the less we like him. As a Californian, it was easy for me to see the similarities between the anti-gay teachers proposition Milk helped defeat in 1978 and its 2008 equivalent which banned gay marriage in California. The movie is a crucial reminder that bigotry comes from deep within our hearts, from our very sense of identity. But beyond the gay rights struggle, what really emerges from the movie is the power of grass-roots politics. Milk was a self-proclaimed "recruiter," and he appealed to the politician in each and every one of us to get off our duffs and get involved.

Frost/Nixon has a much narrower focus, on a series of exit interviews given by Nixon to David Frost, a British talk-show host few took seriously at the time. It has the feeling of a boxing match, and gives the viewer a deep look into the psyches of the two combatants. Nixon, in an amazing performance by Frank Langella, is the real star here. The film is even-handed about Nixon, capturing his slipperiness and strange charisma, reminding us of both his diplomatic accomplishments and his military failures. There's a wonderful scene where Nixon is forced to watch a video montage of suffering Cambodians, who the Americans left out to dry after the Cambodian Campaign - by comparison, Watergate seems like pretty small potatoes. Nixon is defiant throughout, a man who still burns for the fight but feels like he was unfairly benched by the coach in the third inning. But he is also filled with melancholy and regret. By the end, you can't help but feel a little sorry for man, forever insecure about his own value as a politician, left alone to ponder that for the rest of his life.