Good Reads: “Milk” & “Slumdog Millionaire”

Welcome to Good Reads where we look into what makes the screenplay winners Oscar worthy – as we say, every detail counts. Find winners from 2014 to 2009 here under the tag. Now we’re onto two hopeful life stories in 2008, next week we have the instant classic No Country for Old Men and the terribly quirky Juno. Interpret ‘terribly’ as you will.

“Milk”

written by Dustin Lance Black

The Oscars had shown their appreciation for gay rights politician Harvey Milk before, having awarded their Best Documentary statue to The Times of Harvey Milk in 1984. Dustin Lance Black’s Milk may be a rare case of victory from adapting a documentary as Rob Epstein’s film appears to be its primary source. There were attempts to produce the film since the early 90s, including a draft by Oliver Stone, and Gus Van Sant has been attached since then, but it wasn’t until Black’s script that it finally got off the ground.

And it is his passion for Milk and the movement that shines through most of all. The research required must be immaculate – and the crew put in the same effort, the atmosphere is captured from top to bottom. Biopics tend to just hit bullet points, making compromises and dramatising unnecessarily and thus muddying their waters. Milk is still a sweeping montage-like biopic but it also manages to organically weave in a complex character study of the man himself – though lots of credit goes to Sean Penn’s immersive portrayal.

There’s a boldness and optimism in Harvey that’s contagious without ever feeling contrived. We don’t see a glimpse, but we know he’s been through a lot in his first 40 years locked in the closet, and now he’s not going to let anything get in his way easily. At its best, it’s cathartic without making Harvey overly heroic – there are of course shades of grey as he stages a protest and neglects his partner to the point of their suicide. His negligence is the very thing that pit Dan White against him yet we understand why Harvey accidentally turned a blind eye to it.

The film is comprised of such brief sequences that it’s difficult to pick out a section besides the lead up to the murder but a short subversive scene that sticks out is where Harvey refuses to be phased by a threatening note. While he’s alone with Scott, he stands out as an unlikely leader. (from page 22:)

The point of the film is making your later years count and even if you don’t connect with the gay rights activism, that’s an easy piece of hope to cling onto and wise choice by Black to focus on. The final words are indeed: “you gotta give em hope.”

“Slumdog Millionaire”

written by Simon Beaufoy

Okay, I admit to getting swept up in Slumdog Millionaire’s charms at the time of release like everyone else. I even saw it four times before it swept the Oscars. Over time and rewatches, that magic has certainly faded and its contrivances stand out like sore thumbs. However, the sentiment still gets to me sometimes. It’s not trying to hide the fact that it’s contrived – this is melodrama after all. It milks those satisfactions. So why does its sentiment work?

It makes a life of suffering meaningful. Every piece of misery and hardship feeds into Jamal’s fateful reunion and set-for-life bank account. There’s an endearing romance in that idea which the Who Wants to be a Millionaire format facilitates in a modern way. Everything, no matter how arbitrary, feeds into fortune. That’s what the world wanted at the time – for everything bad be worth it. Slumdog is a fine example of that cinematic trope. The magic stays with me in certain scenes, especially in the film’s big payoff where Jamal ‘phones a friend.’

Note two things about the available draft of the script that kind of goes against the point of this series. a) Jamal is called Amir. b) Latika gives him the answer, he goes for it, he wins. No tense moment. No reckless abandon. The shooting script made the right choice to go for a good guess and a happy result. This script on the other hand is finished by that point. But we can still relish in the moment Latika picks up the phone. (from page 126:)

To match Danny Boyle’s kinetic direction, Beaufoy does do a fine job of building atmosphere in a very economic way. Contrivances be damned – it doesn’t miss a detail.

2008 is a doozy: The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, Synecdoche New York, Wall-E, In Bruges, Happy-Go-Lucky, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Let the Right One In. My favourite, which is close to being my favourite of all-time, is Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. It’s a profound tapestry of existentialism, identity, fiction and everything else in the world. It’s too damn dense for its own good in many ways but I’ll gladly watch it for a 20th time right now.

Your thoughts on the screenplays of Milk and Slumdog Millionaire?

What were your favourite scripts, scenes, or characters of 2008? Post in the comments below!