Love, freedom and bad hair

Image of Nigel Andrews

Milk (Gus Van Sant)
Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard)
Valkyrie (Bryan Singer)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Better Things (Duane Hopkins)

This is the best bad-hair week in the history of cinema. Playing real-life roles in Milk and Frost/Nixon respectively, Sean Penn (pictured) and Frank Langella take on that boldest of challenges, the fright coiffure. What better bonfire is there for a movie star’s vanity? A dorky 1970s barber’s cut for Penn’s portrayal of the first openly gay American elected to public office; a receding crinkle-cut for Langella’s Richard Nixon, transforming the former matinee-idol Dracula into a hirsute human termite; and lo, we already believe these are men of history – real men – not overpaid, over-beautified histrios.

These two political dramas are on every current awards roster. And rightly. Milk is made marvellous by Gus Van Sant’s direction. Here are the dissidence, grace and ambushing moments of pain and humour we know from My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting. Harvey Milk was a San Francisco gay activist who became a national hero – for those who shared his struggle and orientation – by winning election as a city supervisor. Soon afterwards he gained an unsolicited martyrdom, shot dead by a rightwing fellow supervisor, Dan White, played with just the right manic uptightness by Josh (W.) Brolin.

What a story. Only in America could two factions – those championing a simple human freedom (the right to love) and those fighting back with prejudice and piety – meet in so heady a mixture of oratory and warfare. Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay starts gauchely, with Penn’s Milk decanting his memories into a tape recorder (a movie-framing device that should be death-listed). But once the decade-spanning story starts and the characters spring into action, reaction and everyday passion – Penn’s fastidiously-spoken firebrand, James Franco as his long-suffering Adonis, Emile Hirsch as the street hustler who turns into a human pocket battleship for the cause, his big-lensed hippy specs like two gun turrets – each scene is a perfect blend of the combative and the quirkily quotidian.

How Milk and his pals turned San Francisco’s Castro district into a gay-welcoming city-state whose only intolerance was for intolerance; how reason and humanity were weaponised in the fight against bigotry (the fearful Anita Bryant, a spokes-bimbo for an orange juice company who turned homophobic Amazon); and how the mellow motility of Harris Savides’s photography suggests a feature documentary kissed by drama’s paintbrush; all these reveal themselves to the discerning, vigilant viewer. Add Penn’s uncannily three-dimensional performance, his best yet, and Milk is a masterclass on how a political biopic can become rich, humane, encompassing cinema.

In Frost/Nixon Frank Langella, a werewolf at bay against the lunar television lights, is spellbinding as Richard Nixon. “We do not want trial by TV,” dozens of politicians and commentators have said over the decades. But oh, we do, in some cases we do. Especially when its most notable true-life instance, the impaling of Nixon by David Frost in 1977, is recreated by Peter Morgan – adapting his stage play – as a duel of antithetical personalities. Nixon was the hunched, hunted-looking ex-president who would defy or deny anything – truth, history, impeachment – to secure the precarious legacy of his few good works. Before he became a rottweiler, Frost (Michael Sheen, superb) was a media popinjay, propelled largely by other talents in his coursing of fame and as facile and famous a social animal as Nixon was gauche, suspicious, defensive.

Morgan brilliantly opens out his play, proving that The Queen and The Last King of Scotland have skilled him as a master scenarist. As performers it is not just Langella and Sheen who excel, two more-than-mimics, each polishing his portrayal in the mirror of the other’s virtuosity. It is the hangers-on too, the hucksters and ideologues-for-hire, from Toby Jones as agent “Swifty” Lazar, Nixon’s creepy dealmaker, to Sam Rockwell’s researcher for Frost, nearly rending his hair as his stellar attack dog fails to attack in the first interviews.

Did the long, emotional midnight phone call between Frost and Nixon on the eve of the climactic Watergate interview really happen? At least as dramatised? It is riveting cinema even if it didn’t: as clever an exercise in character catalysis as Schiller’s imagined rendezvous for Elizabeth and Mary in Mary Stuart. Director Ron Howard, less an artist of film like Van Sant, more a resourceful pro (Apollo 13, Cinderella Man), lays his cloak down for the miraculous script and makes sure everyone can walk with dry feet towards the awards ceremonies.

In Valkyrie Tom Cruise, playing the Hitler assassination plotter Claus von Stauffenberg, shows he is no subscriber to bad-hair weeks. With no tress out of place he blows up the Wolf’s Lair summit room, hastens back to Berlin and starts to reseize, with his co-conspirators, the German government. Unfortunately Adolf Hitler is still alive and the putsch is soon dead. But even in front of the firing squad Cruise’s Stauffenberg is gallant, handsome and ready with a last cry of loyalty to Germany.

We cannot cry “Inauthentic!” in response. Stauffenberg did lead a coup and was handsome and dashing, with the neo-Byronic addition of a black eye-patch and damaged arm incurred in an earlier battle of the second world war. Director Bryan Singer, generalling a script by his Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie, keeps the troops in order and bestows flatteringly authoritative camera angles on his star. But an hour in, there starts to seem something two-dimensional about all this to-ing and fro-ing across the floor of history. A bustle of British supporting actors, including some whose comic pedigree prompts an unintended giggle (Eddie Izzard), is compounded with an accent free-for-all encompassing English, mid-Atlantic and for Hitler cod German. (Is his Austrian origin the pretext for this Teutonic singularity?)

In a week boasting the multi-layered heroes and antiheroes of Milk and Frost/Nixon, Valkyrie seems more like history by Nintendo: a slickly devised exercise in action drama whose entire research and development budget went into the external details of the plot, leaving none for the inner realism of its participants.

Rachel Getting Married is scripted by Jenny Lumet, daughter of director Sidney. You could guess that this headlong tragicomedy, berserk with confessionalism, came from the household that gave us such psyche-spilling works as Dog Day Afternoon and the film of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Here a recuperating alcoholic, played by Anne Hathaway in a 180º turn from her romcom roles (Princess Diaries, Bride Wars), runs amok at her sister’s wedding deep in John Updike country.

Everyone in this New England family is clever, beautiful and rich. Then the wounded soul arrives to poop the party. Lumet and director Jonathan Demme make it seem horrible fun. From the moment Hathaway yelps “That’s so unfair!” when the sister announces her pregnancy, it’s clear this rehab refugee wants the spotlights to shine squarely on her. Those hovering nearby include Bill Irwin’s tear-prone dad and Debra Winger’s glacially convivial estranged mum, whose bonhomie spreads straight from the freezer and returns there after use.

Hathaway is good. And few spectacles are more succulent than an American family tearing itself apart. But two hours is a long time to watch this Connecticut carve-up. The film, like the shindig, ends up dissolving in a schmaltzy brew of make-do-and-mend, complete with a sari-clad wedding accompanied by multi-ethnic music, whose PC touchy-feeliness one hopes is a joke but fears is not.

There is more truth and heartache in Better Things, a tranche of British realism that will win few friends for charm or vitality. Stricken teenagers, filmed in close-up or in grey landscapes almost sobbing with featurelessness, deal with the standard crucifixions of youth – sex, drugs – and the less age-particular tribulations of life and chance: agoraphobia, bereavement, loneliness. In some scenes a film aiming at the atonal is merely toneless, at the miserablist merely miserable. But Hopkins has a singularity of style worth watching and the courage not to flinch in putting it on screen.

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