Awards Season

'Slumdog Milk-ionaire'

Sean Penn in 'Milk'

Milk: Might this man have a more uplifting story than even an instant millionaire? Focus Features hide caption

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by John Ramos

Note: John Ramos is a film producer and a longtime writer at Television Without Pity. Happily, he will be joining me and Stephen Thompson (NPR Music Editor and the creator of The Onion A.V. Club) for our live Oscar coverage on Sunday night, beginning at 8 p.m.

— Linda Holmes

Okay, I'll admit that portmanteau in the title doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

Superficially, Slumdog Millionaire and Milk are similar in that they deal with utter unknowns who become beloved figures. But beyond that, they're radically different. They're almost polar opposites in many ways, including the emotional states they left me in — and not in the way their apparent happy-ending/sad-ending alignment might suggest.

As told in Sean Penn's (if you'll excuse the expression) Oscar-worthy performance, Harvey Milk's journey began with a simple desire to be seen, to stand up and be counted. He thrived on both the satisfaction he got from fighting for the rights of his gay constituents and on the attendant attention. The famous message he recorded to be played in the event of his assassination is featured prominently in the film as both a storytelling device and a reminder to the audience not to get too comfortable.

Furthermore, even if you go in not knowing the story, the film opens with Dianne Feinstein announcing his murder (and Mayor George Moscone's) at the hands of Dan White, so the viewer is intimately aware that Milk's story is going to come to a tragic end.

Why both sad endings and happy endings are often not as they appear, after the jump...

But what could have been a somber countdown, an elliptical elegy, is in fact an extremely uplifting work. Milk touched people in ways few politicians ever have while almost single-handedly moving gay rights years forward, most notably with his defeat of the hateful Proposition 6, well depicted in the film.

It's tempting to wonder what more Milk would have done for the community if he hadn't been gunned down before his fiftieth birthday, especially in the wake of Proposition 8's passage last year, but the film has allowed people to rally around his ghost, almost exhorting activists of all kinds to wonder, "What Would Harvey Do?" as they plan their next moves. It doesn't change the fact of the tragedy, but if you believe the film's message, Harvey Milk did stand up and was counted, and if given the choice, he wouldn't have changed a thing. That's inspirational.

Slumdog Millionaire, on the other hand, seems to have a much happier premise: a young man from a desperately poor upbringing goes on the Indian Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and improbably gets rich overnight. Yet, within the first few moments, it's clear the film is going to be anything but easy. It starts with Jamal being tortured and interrogated by the police, and once they consent to listen to his story, it flashes back to incidents in Jamal's life, each more horrifying than the last, that have left indelible scars.

As Jamal relives these horrors, it's clear that no amount of money will be any consolation. In fact, in a rather sad irony, Jamal's riches make him an overnight celebrity and a source of hope for other impoverished citizens, even though the money is meaningless to him. Only one thing has kept Jamal going — his love for Latika, a girl to whom he showed kindness when they were very young.

The multitude of ways in which the stars had to align to create Jamal's happy ending may seem uplifting on the surface, but the fact that he's both unhappy and less than hopeful throughout the film suggests that the weight of his childhood may not be lifted even by the storybook ending — a point emphasized by his caressing of Latika's facial scars at the very end. And although the film ends with both his game-show win and their reunion, the latter development is literally paid for in blood.

When the film closed by telling us Jamal's journey was "written," I thought, "Which part?" And it's hard not to wonder: What about all the slumdogs who don't become millionaires?

This isn't a criticism — I actually mean to compliment Slumdog for not allowing the happy ending to overwhelm the difficult beginning. In focus and storytelling, it's the superior film, not indulging in distracting asides like the Jack Lira character in Milk. (Biopics are tough to make perfectly, that's for sure.)

I think Slumdog will (and should) win the Oscar for Best Picture — but while both films make me appreciate what I have, if I want a smile on my face, I'll take Milk, tragic end and all. (Especially if I can tack on the dancing over the credits in Slumdog.)

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