Film review by: Witney Seibold




            I have read some reviews of Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” that criticize it for being a little too clean, and a little too careful. It is, after all, a film about an openly gay political icon living in the Castro district in 1970s San Francisco. Why aren’t there more scenes of gay sex and wild public drug consumption? I feel, however, that its cleanliness is exactly why “Milk” works so well. Not that I feel we should be shielded from the dirty stuff, mind you (indeed, I think it’s refreshing that we’re seeing an increasing number of male-male kisses in mainstream Hollywood films), but because Harvey Milk himself was very much a populist candidate who advocated a wholesome visibility of the gay community, so should his film be open and barefaced and more about his political career than any bedroom antics. As evidenced by the recent horrifying passing of Prop 8 in California, people should be reminded that visible and publically-accepted homosexuality is currently just as much a political issue as it is a personal one. “Milk” is not just one of the best films of the year, but it’s one of the timeliest.


            Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) was a 40-year-old closeted stuffed-shirt who, on his first night with Scott Smith (James Franco), the man who was to become his long-time boyfriend, realizes that he’s done very little with his life. Harvey and Scott move to the Castro and open up a camera shop. For the most part, they are welcomed to the area, although a local business owner has no problems confronting them in the middle of the street to lambast them for being gay. Upon witnessing the occasional bouts of all-too-common police brutality against homosexuals, Harvey almost instantly begins a campaign for public office; he will not sit idly by. “Milk” follows his campaigns, and how indicates what a savvy politician he was. Eventually Harvey becomes Supervisor. It’s been iterated many times in many reviews (and indeed in the film itself) that he was the first openly gay politician elected to office.


            Along the way we meet a few more important players in Milk’s life. There’s Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) a street-hustler-turned-invaluable-organizer. There was Jack Lira (Diego Luna), Milk’s second boyfriend and insufferable drama queen. There was Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), Milk’s official campaign organizer. And, most importantly, there was Dan White (Josh Brolin), another city supervisor, a slightly homophobic, tattered soul who is destined to become Milk’s assassin, and the assassin of San Francisco mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).


            The performances in this film are nothing short of amazing. I’ve often been put off by Penn, who can be grating even when he’s giving his all (see “Mystic River”). But looking at his performance in “Milk,” not only is he chameleonic (he looks very much like Harvey Milk), but he manages to be devilishly likable and understandably charming. He makes Milk into someone who was always friendly, not afraid to show his true self in public, but always keeping an eye on the opinions of the populous and the political tide. And, in an age of Anita Bryant’s infuriating hate speech, he was brave. When you set his performance in “Milk” next to his performance in “Dead Man Walking,” you being to truly grasp the range of Penn’s talent.


            No less impressive was Josh Brolin as the tortured, uppity, and perhaps homosexual White (“I think he may be one of us,” Milk muses). While he was the one that ultimately took Milk’s life, White’s role has been minimized in “Milk,” giving Brolin a small chance to give a sense of his character. Luckily, Brolin is such a strong performer, he manages to give us everything we need in the screentime he’s given. The choice to reduce White’s role in the film was, upon reflection, an excellent one. We want a film about Milk’s life and the importance of his legacy. Not a dull police procedural about his death.


            See “Milk.” Is it “Hollywood safe?” I suppose it could be described that way. Especially, coming as it did from Gus Van Sant, a director whose last four films have been slow-moving “experimental” ones. But it’s also moving, water-tight, and a reminder of the talent of the people involved.

Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 8:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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