Kevin's Review: Gus Van Sant's Milk - A Tall Glass of Emotion
by Kevin Powers
November 26, 2008
In 1977 an unlikely leader was elected as a city supervisor in San Francisco. His name was Harvey Milk, and he was the first openly gay politician in the country's history. Not a year after taking office, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated inside of City Hall. During his brief time in office, Milk helped pass a number of gay rights initiatives and defeat the exceedingly discriminatory Proposition 6. Fast forward 20 years and we have the passage of Proposition 8 in California and an intense sense of deja vu.
In part, current events are what makes Gus Van Sant's Milk such a chilling and timely tale, that while at once beautiful and tragic, leaves one with a half-empty perspective on how short society has really come. But from the inspiring man that was Harvey Milk to the incredible performance by Sean Penn to the shocking murder of a rising community leader to Van Sant's intimate framing and treatment, Milk is a gallon's worth of rightfully deserved superlatives that make it one of the best movies of 2008.
As has been printed and described to me, Harvey Milk was an ordinary man by most accounts, but one with an impressive degree of empathy, optimism and passion. Sean Penn as Milk embodies these characteristics so deftly that's hard to imagine him ever having played a hardened character before (e.g. the detective in The Interpreter). As Penn recites Milk's move to California and his political pursuits, his impassioned expressions and bouncy intonation has a dedication and complexity that borders on career-worthy. You get a sense that Milk really was as charismatic and everyday as Penn describes, and that it's no wonder he was able to galvanize a community out of a plain sense for what was right. Might Penn secure another Academy Award for his performance? I certainly hope so.
In the film, Milk (in his early 40s) moves from New York City to The Castro area of San Fransisco with his boyfriend Scott (James Franco). The two open up a small business, Castro Camera, which quickly gives way to Milk becoming involved in the neighborhood merchant association and by extension the fight for equal treatment. Milk's fight for his and the community's equality continues to grow, eventually leading to him running for political office and securing the city supervisor seat. Along the way, Milk amasses a rag-tag group of activists and campaigners, most notably Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch). Both Franco and Hirsch hold their own alongside Penn, delivering affectionate, genuine performances to be proud of.
Franco pulls off the intimacy in his relationship with Penn, while Hirsch nails the bubbly impatient activist. Probably the only brand-name in Milk that didn't deliver was Josh Brolin, quite sadly, as the murderer Dan White. Despite the guy's recently rise to stardom, he sits firmly as the odd man out among the other three leads. I know Brolin plays the troubled fellow city supervisor who does the unthinkable, but his performance comes off as incomplete rather than complex. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black share some of the blame here as you never get the sense that Brolin's character really develops.
An obvious aspect that may make Milk a hard sell is it's squarely gay perspective. And while there isn't a Brokeback Mountain terrain of intimacy, there certainly is a lot of affection between Franco and Penn - very well-placed and executed, I might add. And sure, you can abstract the fight for equality as a civil rights issue that touches everyone, but as you'll see in the movie, Milk's fight never hid the gay angle behind more general, albeit safer messages. Appreciating Milk and the life of Harvey Milk is to truly understand what he and his supporters fought for. Some may not understand it completely or can't relate to it personally, but they can certainly appreciate the man's accomplishments. Generalizing Milk's message and legacy wouldn't be a just treatment of the man.
Gay himself, director Gus Van Sant recognizes this very importance and tells Milk's story in a surprisingly authentic manner. You don't get the sense that the film has been white-washed or "blockbustered" in any way at all, and that Focus Features is putting themselves out there again as honestly as they did with Brokeback. At a reported budget of around $20 million, Van Sant was able to transform The Castro back to its '70s look, but he let his talent shape the movie. Milk will go down not only as a hallmark film for the gay community, but also a piece of cinema that everyone should remember for its timeliness, its hero, its cast, and its emotional intricacy that simultaneously inspires feelings of joy, sadness and anger.