Sunday, January 4, 2009

Movie Review: Milk

Milk (2008)

Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Tagline: His life changed history. His courage changed lives.
Runtime: 128 minutes


Sean Penn - Harvey Milk
James Franco - Scott Smith
Emile Hirsch - Cleve Jones
Josh Brolin - Dan White

Sean Penn is Harvey Milk. At least that's what I will always remember him as, after seeing his wonderful portrayal of the gay/activist/politician who was gunned down, along with Mayor George Moscone, in 1978 by San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Dan White (Josh Brolin) at City Hall.

Like another very good film this year, Frost/Nixon, the overall story is based in fact, and the outcome is readily known. It is what the director and the actors bring to the script that makes us feel something, and is the reason we ultimately end up caring about what happens to characters such as Harvey Milk.

The film opens and closes with a 48 year old Milk speaking into a tape recorder, leaving instructions and thoughts in the (likely?) case that he is ever assassinated. In between we are taken along the previous 8 years of Milk's life, as he goes from a 40 year old gay man living in New York who tells one of his partners in bed that he has done nothing much with his life, to the 48 year old who became the first openly-gay elected politician in the United States, and the leader of a major gay rights movement in San Francisco and across the nation.

Along with his partner Scott Smith (James Franco), Milk opens up a photography store near Castro Theater in a very gay neighborhood of San Francisco. Witnessing that even there they would be subject to hate, Milk begins to organize and share his views with other gay members of the community, eventually running for, losing, then winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors. During this time we see Milk's power to bring people together, to project unity and fairness, and it is during these scenes that Penn shines the brightest.

The process of getting there is the story of Milk, and with a decent supporting role by Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild; The Girl Next Door) as lost but found young gay activist Cleve Jones, Penn gives us the good, the not so good, and the very real life of a man fighting for human rights while striving to live his own life in peace - it is told to us that no less than 3 of Milk's partners have killed themselves over the years, a topic, percentage wise skewed in the gay community, not covered too much in mainstream media.

Not to be overlooked is the strong performance by Josh Brolin (W.; No Country for Old Men) as Board of Supervisors member Dan White. It is heavily implied that White's "all-American" lifestyle of family values is a cover for his actual homosexuality, and ultimately this is to be reasoned as the driving force towards his eventual murders of the Mayor and of Milk. Brolin does a very nice job as a man conflicted, a political man, and his relationship with Milk, though friendly on the surface, is wrought with tension and, most likely, anger.

In the end I found myself thinking of the film, of the performances, and more importantly of our society and how much it takes great men doing great things at the right time in history to make great changes. I'm not convinced Harvey Milk had any great aspirations, but when the chance was there he seized it and he changed countless lives for the better. I have very little to complain about with this film, but I also don't have too much over-the-top praise. It is a very good film and one worth seeing.


No comments: