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Friday, November 28, 2008


Review: Milk

Sean Penn for SupervisorJamison via FlickrFew modern political figures have needed a biopic more than Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco Supervisor who served as the first openly gay government official in the United States. It's great news that a filmmaker as qualified as Gus Van Sant -- whose career has drifted from mainstream (Good Will Hunting) to arthouse (Elephant) with ease, who first rose to prominence with gay-themed classics (Mala Noche, My Own Private Idaho) -- has taken on the task of telling his story. Milk, with a brisk screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Big Love), serves both the man and the mythology dutifully...but more importantly, it tells its tale artfully, finding operatic resonance in Milk's populist crusades and exploring sexuality with sensitivity (while not, it should be noted, leaving out the actual sex).

Van Sant is, above all things, a pro...and a pro knows that great film biography requires great actors. I've been trying to think of a film where Sean Penn is better than he is here; his portrayal of Milk is charming, determined, studied, and free. The detail in his physicality is reminiscent of Brando and DeNiro's best work; his fragile handling of Milk's inconsistencies are at times dazzling. Van Sant gets equally sincere work from Penn's all-star supporting team, including Emile Hirsch (Into The Wild), Alison Pill (The Lieutenant of Inishmore on Broadway), Denis O'Hare (Michael Clayton), and a career-best performance from James Franco (Spider-Man). The ensemble is enormous, with more than a dozen major characters...so not everything works perfectly. (Diego Luna, in particular, misses the tone of the film badly.) But in the crowd scenes, at rallies and parties, and in the passageways of City Hall, Milk evokes its world completely and fully.

There is tragedy in Milk's story, of course, but Black's expediency dispenses with a great deal of background information; I'm unsure how those new to Milk's story will respond to the screenplay's thin contextual sensibilities. (For the curious, there's an even better film about him, an Oscar-winner to boot...The Times of Harvey Milk, a superb documentary from 1984. Check it out.) But similar slights occurred to the subjects of Ray, Walk The Line, Capote, and Good Night and Good Luck, and they all seemed to do okay.

The important thing to remember about Milk, it seems to me, is that it addresses a canyon-wide gap in society's knowledge of the equal rights movement...at a very important time for that movement's future. One would have to be blind and deaf not to see the modern-day implications of Milk's battle against Proposition 6. In Van Sant's hands, it's both a story for the ages, and a story for our age. That's how Harvey would have wanted it, and that's how it should be...warts and all.
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Blogger Esther said...

Hey ModFab,
I saw Milk yesterday and although I knew the story, I still found it very powerful and moving. Sean Penn was terrific and I really liked Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones.

Several scenes really got to me - especially the opening one, where we see this grainy black and white footage of the police raiding gay bars and carting off patrons who are trying to hide their faces. It's such an awesome contrast with the final scene, where you have thousands of gay men marching solemnly and openly in a tribute to Harvey Milk.

And the other scene was when Harvey exhorts his followers to come out to their families, their neighbors, their coworkers. He tells them, if they know once of us, they'll vote for us. It's such a poignant moment because it's so full of optimism.

Well, sadly, we know that proximity doesn't always create empathy. After all, Jews were fully integrated into German society before World War II.

That's why we have civil rights laws, because it doesn't matter whether or not you like someone. The point is, we're all entitled to the same protections under the Constitution.

12/29/08, 11:57 PM  

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