Kevin's Review: Gus Van Sant's Milk - A Tall Glass of Emotion

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.

Cleve Jones and Harvey Milk attend a rally in a scene from Milk.Milk Review

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.

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I'm dying to see this movie, I really am. But it's in limited release, and we don't want to deal with the post-Thanksgiving crowds in Hollywood, so we'll just have to wait. Ah well.

Lady Aerin on Nov 26, 2008


It's worth it - go see it Lady Aerin! I was going to write a review of my own, but now I'm not sure, since Kevin nailed it and there's really not much more I can say about it that he didn't. It really is one of the best movies of the year and so important for society to see. Penn better win the Oscar too - in my opinion, he's got the it hands down. Great review Kevin! 🙂

Alex Billington on Nov 26, 2008


I agree Kevin certainly did nail this review. God, I effin loved this movie. I can't praise Sean Penn enough.

tzarinna on Nov 26, 2008


I'm really sad I won't get to see it this weekend. I guess it either didn't go into wide release or Colorado Springs didn't get it. =((

Will S. on Nov 26, 2008


I had the chance to see the film in advance screening in Boston. Cleve Jones did and Question and Answer session afterwards. It is one of the best films I've seen in a while. It's not the type of drama that puts you to sleep, rather it keeps you intrigued and connected to the characters within the film.

Michael Radley on Nov 27, 2008


Glad to hear the hype isn't unfounded Alex. I'm looking forward to seeing this.

Film-Book dot Com on Nov 27, 2008


I'd go go just for Cleve Jones haircut, bet Darunia would be in the front row too, it's often the most homophobic people are the one's that want it the most.

Crapola on Nov 28, 2008


The one big criticism I have besides the development of Brolin's character is the over-the-top acting of Diego Luna as Milk's boyfriend Jack. Maybe it's a good representation of how the actual Jack was, but it came off like a caricature and took me out of the movie on more than one occasion.

Danny Devito on Nov 30, 2008


Milk.....Sean Penn . AMAZING. Emile Hirsch...AMAZING. Luna...God AWFUL..choice of SYLVESTER portrayal...UNFORGIVABLE!!! Gus Van Zant..[question] Will Gus Van Zant ever get out of his fascination with tragic young White men, and the Older white men who slobber over them. [another question] Will Gus Van Zant ever direct a movie with people of color in it (gay or straight)? Ugh...Loved the story and portrayal of the Life of Harvey Milk. But Gus' movies always leave me feeling left out somehow. Peace Brown Peter

Peter Griggs on Dec 2, 2008


I loved the film, hated Diego Luna, which is odd becuase I've loved him in everything... even Terminal lol. I think the supporting cast didn't get enough to do, even Franco who was fantastic. You've got to love a movie that would bypass Penn's pentient for rage and keep him genial and sweet. How can you not completely fall in love with Harvey, even as a heterosexual my self I thought he was the sweetest guy in the world, compared to his oscar winning turn in Mystic River it's hard to believe they're the same guy. The murder of Milk was so good for so many reasons. You knew it was going to happen, they never shy away from it but unlike Valkyrie it was about the journey.

adrian on Dec 17, 2008


This was such an amazing film. I think I cried four different times during the movie! lol But Sean Penn was so fantastic as Harvey Milk and his supporting cast did such an excellent job with their performances. Hirsch was great as always and James Franco really impressed me.

Ashley on Dec 19, 2008


Sean Penn deserves the accolades and so does Gus Van Sant... i have seen both the slumdog millionaire and Milk in one week and slumdog has NOTHING on MILK... this movie is so powerful in conveying its subject and it just seems like everything has come together at the same time for this movie to be relevant and for it to make a cultural impact today... in US Barack Obama - a Black man elected to presidency...and California decision on proposition 8... this just goes to show that the struggle is still on... i am over come with emotion to be coherrent and make sense but that is teh effect the movie has on you... and when the end credits role and you see who cleve jones really is and that he is guy who started the NAMES and teh AIDS quilt programme you realise the magnitude of what MILK stood for and what he created... This movie has permanently entered in the list of my all time favourite movies.... Mickey Rourke better deliver a KnockOut Punch else No ONE has anything on Sean Penn this year... this has got to be his year... and as a foot note emile hirsch is a star to look out for.... he has all the trappings of a future leonardo di caprio with the three comepletely different and knock out performances in a very short span of time (Into The Wild, Speed Racer, and Milk AMAZING MOVIE.... i dont see the reason why you knocked off 1 star rating its a perfect 10. but josh brolin disappointed ... so maybe its ok 9/10 is still AMAZING

viral on Dec 29, 2008


i read the review you posted kevin and you covered everything i just wrote ^^ so sorry if i was repetitive .... but your review is fair succint and amazingly more coherrent then i attempted... maybe you had a few hours between seeing the movie and writing the review... i literally couldnt wait to write this out ... i LOVED the movie...

viral on Dec 29, 2008


Hi kevin, you have covered every thing. I have not seen this movie yet but now i am thinking to watch it. Keep up the good work. It is really great to read a good review about a movies before watching it.

Title 24 on Feb 6, 2009


I agree overall with Kevin's review, but I must depart from his asessment of Brolin's character. Thing is that Dan White was something of an enigma, as he has little to no relationship with any of the other supervisors. He was very much a man ill-suited for politics and very uncomfortable with the give and take it involved. Personally, I thought Brolin did a great job with the time he had onscreen. If his character seemed incomplete, it's probably because the film was Harvey's story, not Dan's. Still, I agree that it would have been great to learn more about Dan White and what led him to do what he did.

elessar on Apr 29, 2009

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