Fake politics for the real America Frost / Nixon, W., Milk, and the US election

In Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) narrates his own story almost immediately. Van Sant even gives away the ending: that Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to city office in the United States, will be assassinated. His recorded voiceover prepares for that exact eventuality. But Milk is about a particular time and place as it is about the man: San Francisco’s “The Castro” in the late 70s and early 80s. The opening credits contain a powerful sequence of gay oppression and arrests, seen through newspaper headlines and television footage. Unlike the showmanship of Stone’s JFK, though, in which he seamlessly integrated history into his own conspiratorial proof, Van Sant isn’t particularly interested in giving his own cast historical verisimilitude. He tints or filters some scenes to give them a Super-8 or video-cassette blur, but hardly attempts to hide the seams. Is it less moving because Van Sant’s footage of Milk’s candlelight memorial slides noticeably into footage of the real thing? This artifice protects the film from the accusations of “fabrication and illusion” leveled against Stone’s JFK (20). The sea of historical images in Milk – riots, vox pops, news broadcasts – even provide the film’s political villain, anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant. She only appears in the film via stock footage, so no actor is required to play her.

Rather than digital effects, Milk‘s manipulations can be theatrically unassuming. Van Sant places Scotty (James Franco) in a police riot simply by showing footage of the event, and then cutting to Harvey dabbing a cut on Scotty’s forehead. Voila! Scotty was there. As Harvey says: “Politics is about theatre.” Is it this quiet sense of unreality that prevents Milk from ever becoming too ugly? Apart from the assassination – in which we see a bullet hit Milk’s upraised hand – it’s a clean, bloodless film. When Harvey attends the scene of a gay-bashing, Van Sant uses a sudden burst of stylistic excess. The violent aftermath is a reflection in a shiny whistle used to attract help, far from grimy reality. Similarly, critics complained about the “neutered” Harvey that appears on screen (21). We see him flirting, or roughhousing with sexual partners, but there’s nothing approaching sex itself. Cleve’s (Emile Hirsch) prostitution is glossed over in a single line. Harvey is told he can’t simply campaign on negativity, and the film reflects this in his last exaltation: “You gotta give them hope!”

The first words to appear in the end credits of Milk are: “Special thanks to the Academy Award winning film The Times Of Harvey Milk for its enormous contribution to the making of this movie.” Van Sant’s Milk borrows heavily from Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary – not only through shared archival footage, but even the basic storytelling structure. The question is inevitable: why, then, watch the movie instead of the documentary? Actor’s simulations offer their own distinct pleasures, but it’s also true that archival footage can feel less immediate that restaged drama. It’s the way that everything is made public in a biopic. In Frost/Nixon, we see a drunken phone call that even Nixon doesn’t remember; in Milk, we’re privy to all of Harvey’s private moments. Conversely, access to Milk’s murderer, Dan White (Josh Brolin), remains limited. Epstein’s documentary shows White as a complicated man, not just the obvious cinema “heavy” he is here (22). In Milk, White seems more disturbed by Harvey’s ability to generate publicity than by his sexuality, and is pictured sitting alone at home, watching Milk on television, his thoughts unknowable. Milk doesn’t represent White’s moment of fame after the shooting, relegating his trial and its infamous ‘Twinkie Defense’ to a footnote. 

Langella’s Nixon and Brolin’s Bush never come face to face with those they portray, but Sean Penn comes close. During the end credits, images of the actors fade into images of their real-life inspiration. It’s an attempt to reassure audiences that the artificiality they’ve just witnessed can still satisfy their need for documentary images of the real (23). Do we understand more about Milk after watching his doppelganger than his own documentary? More about Nixon after watching the “single snapshot” of Langella’s close-up than Nixon’s own? More about Brolin’s W. – as he looks into the camera while the soundtrack plays the Blackwood Brothers singing “Down deep in my soul…” – than after the last eight years? All these films exhibit what Linda Williams calls the rich contradiction of our “postmodern deluge” of images – simultaneously suggesting that access to ‘real’ truth has been lost, while also acknowledging that the image has power to move audiences to “a new appreciation of a previously unknown truth” (24).

This contradiction rings especially true to a country that was hyperbolically divided into ‘real’ and ‘fake’ halves during the election process. When Sarah Palin claimed that she represented “the real America”, Jon Stewart fired back a blistering retort on Daily Show, concluding:

So, even if John McCain doesn’t win the ‘election’ in ‘America, he’ll still be president of ‘real America’ — the America that matters, the one that Sarah Palin will still take questions from … Right now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘Am I one of these un-Americans I’ve been hearing so much about?’ All this real America and fake America can get a little hard to figure out (25).

Perhaps the final word on the election, then, should belong to another artificial man, simulated by computer and coloured science-fiction blue: the superhuman Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009). Based on a 20 year old comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is an ‘alternate history’ of America in which superheroes won the Vietnam War and an aged Richard Nixon remains in power. He’s comic-book Nixon come to life, mimicry turned to caricature, described as a “hambone imitation” with a “rubber nose” (26). In a bravura credits sequence, Snyder guides us on a transmedia tour of this alternate America. Instead of inserting its characters into history, however, Watchmen simply absorbs all media, all history, into its own slick hyperreality – a space of “fabulous proportions, but without space or dimensions” (27). First we see the familiar ‘Zapruder’ footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination – but the camera seamlessly moves to a never-before-seen angle where we see that superhero-gone-bad The Comedian has fired the fatal gunshot. The sprawling narrative of Watchmen concerns a massive conspiracy. Baudrillard would hold that Watchmen’s simulated America and its fabricated politics is just another, existing only to make us believe that the winners and losers of the 2008 election were, in fact, the real thing.

(1) Chris Welch, ‘Beam me up, Wolf! CNN debuts election-night “hologram”‘ CNN 6 November 2008 http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/11/06/hologram.yellin/index.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(2) Asher Moses, ‘CNN’s “holograms” just smoke and mirrors’, Sydney Morning Herald 7 November 2008 http://www.smh.com.au/news/home/technology/cnns-hologram-hoax/2008/11/07/1225561097423.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(3) Ben Arnon, ‘How the Obama “Hope” Poster Reached a Tipping Point and Became a Cultural Phenomenon: An Interview With the Artist Shepard Fairey’, Huffington Post 13 October 2008 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ben-arnon/how-the-obama-hope-poster_b_133874.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(4) Leigh Holmwood, ‘Barack Obama gives Daily Show biggest ever audience’, The Guardian 31 October 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/oct/31/ustelevision-barackobama Accessed 11 March 2009.

(5) Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in Mark Poster (ed.), Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Second Edition), California, Stanford UP, 2001, p.170.

(6) Linda Williams, ‘Mirrors Without Memory: Truth, History, and the New Documentary’, in Alan Rosenthal & John Corner (eds), New Challenges for Documentary (Second Edition), Manchester, Manchester UP, 2005, p.65.

(7) Jim Collins, ‘Postmodern Television’, in Robert C. Allen (ed.), Channels of Discourse, Reassembled (Second Edition), London, Routledge, 1992, pp.331-2.

(8) David Denby, ‘Curious Cases’, The New Yorker, 9 February 2009 http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2009/02/09/090209crci_cinema_denby Accessed 11 March 2009.

9) Roger Ebert, ‘Frost / Nixon‘, Chicago Sun-Times 10 December 2008 http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081210/REVIEWS/812109987 Accessed 11 March 2009.

(10) Jean Baudrillard, pp.174-5.

(11) Alessandra Stanley, ‘On “SNL” It’s the Real Sarah Palin, Looking Like a Real Entertainer’, New York Times 19 October 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/20/arts/television/20watch.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(12) Ryan Lizza, ‘Battle Plans: How Obama Won’, The New Yorker 17 November 2008 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/11/17/081117fa_fact_lizza?currentPage=all

13) For example, see Marcus Baram, ‘Stone Fills Out Cast for Bush Movie’, ABC News 1 April 2008 http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/Vote2008/story?id=4563558&page=1 Accessed 11 March 2009.

(14) For example, see Manohla Dargis, ‘Oliver Stone’s Vision Thing: Bush, the Family’, New York Times 17 October 2008 http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/movies/17ston.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(15) Jim Collins, pp.333-4.

(16) Ian Scott, American Politics in Film, Edinburgh, Edinburgh UP, 2000, p.146.

(17) Linda Williams, pp.60-1.

(18) Robert Draper, ‘The Making (and Remaking) of McCain’, New York Times 22 October http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/26/magazine/26mccain-t.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(19) Jim Collins, p.333.

(20) Ian Scott, p.147.

(21) Mark Simpson, ‘There’s just one problem with Milk: it castrates its hero’, The Guardian 28 January 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2009/jan/28/milk-gus-van-sant-sean-penn Accessed 11 March 2009.

(22) Hilton Als, ‘Revolutionary Road’, New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 4, 2009. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22411 11 March 2009

(23) Linda Williams, p.60.

(24) Ibid.

(25) The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Comedy Central, 20 October 2008.

(26) Geoff Boucher, ‘Is “Watchmen” the “Fight Club” of superhero films?’ LA Times 10 March 2009 http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2009/03/is-watchmen-the.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(27) Jean Baudrillard, p.175.