Sunday, December 14, 2008

Milk (2008)

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If Brokeback Mountain opened the door for same-sex relationships to be viewed from the same emotional perspective as heterosexual relationships, Milk, the true story of San Francisco activist and politician Harvey Milk, blasts the door down with a marching parade and bullhorn, bringing the gay rights movement front and center in a deeply human context. Whereas Brokeback showcased the personal affairs associated with a homosexual relationship in an intolerant society, Milk highlights the social struggle homosexuals have faced and the barriers they have both overcome and still face, and takes no prisoners in the process. Whether you know the story of Harvey Milk or whether you come to the film blindly with no idea what is about to happen (as I did), the levity of the actual events and the artistry behind the filmmaking will stun you. Gus Van Sant, who has made other controversial and powerful films such as Elephant, directs Milk with a fevered passion that captures the spirit of Harvey Milk and the sentiment of the movement. This works both to Van Sant's advantage and disadvantage, as Milk contains truly electric and heartwrenching scenes, but also at times seems to preach. Van Sant seems to be telling the audience how and when to feel at select moments in the film, when the sheer brilliance of the acting does more than enough to convey the emotional overtones. Despite the few flaws, Van Sant captures the atmosphere of the 70s and San Francisco with great sets and locations, a well-chosen soundtrack, and the use of real footage to give the film a sense of reality. His choice to not cast an actress to play antagonist Anita Baker, but rather to let her actual footage play her part is a genius move that exhibits her wickedness in a way no actress could express, and is deserving of high accolades alone. Van Sant also chose to use choice filmstock to give many scenes a "Wonder Years" type vibe, which is incredibly effective. His best decisions, however, were his choices in casting. There are few words that can be used to describe Sean Penn's performance in the title role; only perfect comes to mind. Absolutely no one could have played this part but Penn, and this is clear from the opening scene. He embodies Milk, and his performance is physical, emotional, spiritual, and shames most actors in the business. Penn's performance is a complete transformation, portraying Milk as a human; proud but flawed, ferocious yet charming, silly and clever, loving and funny. Up against a monumental challenge, the supporting cast complements Penn's performance nearly across the board. Emile Hirsch delivers a name-making performance as Cleve Jones, Penn's campaign volunteer and was clearly inspired by Penn's virtuosity. James Franco is strong as Scott Smith, Milk's love interest and friend, and shows that his acting chops are starting to develop. Diego Luna's portrayal of Jack Lira, Milk's other companion, is the only questionable turn in the otherwise solid cast. Luna's character is eccentric, but the performance comes across as over the top and even somewhat amateur next to Penn's Milk. The supporting cast as a whole complements Penn appropriately, but Josh Brolin, as Dan White, is the only other actor to hold his own and put himself on the same playing field as Penn. In what is without question the most important supporting role in the film, Brolin has proven once again he is a serious, big-time actor with incredible talent. Brolin's portrayal of a deeply troubled man is both moving and haunting, and a scene in which he approaches Milk while intoxicated stands out as one of the best from this year. Thirty years later, some may wonder why it took so long for Milk's story to be told to a mass audience. What matters, though, is that the story was told, and not just told, but proclaimed beautifully with precision and care. The passion and fire of Harvey Milk are personified by Van Sant and company in what is a proper tribute to a great man. Although the conclusion of the story comes as no surprise (even those who didn't know about Milk find out when Van Sant tells them minutes into the film), the despair of the final moments of Milk will weigh heavily on anyone with a heart. But what makes the film and the legacy of Harvey Milk vital is the hope they inspire.

Good for: everyone, film junkies, historians, civil rights activists, Penn fans

Bad for: the intolerant

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * * * *
The Writer * * * * *

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