Milk Review


When “Milk” came out, Proposition 8 had just passed in California, outlawing gay marriage. It was a sad time among gay-rights supporters, and then a film like this comes along about the assassination of one of its heroes to remind us all that as far as we’ve come, we still have a long way to go. Yet, director Gus Van Sant’s film is so hopeful, it serves as a helpful reminder that the night is darkest just before dawn. It’s an incredibly uplifting story that should inspire you no matter what your political or religious beliefs are.

The film opens when Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) is just another accountant living in New York. He meets a much younger man, Scott (James Franco), and Harvey expresses his fear that he hasn’t done anything important in his life. So they go to San Francisco, open a camera shop, and eventually become leaders in the gay-rights movement. Harvey begins to campaign for city supervisor. He loses again and again, but he doesn’t quit. Eventually, his persistence pays off, and he gets elected, but the more persistent he is, the more vicious his opponents become. Anita Bryant, a religious zealot, begins a nationwide campaign against homosexuality (in California, it takes the form of Proposition 6–a law that will ban gay teachers if passed), and it becomes dangerous for Harvey to simply stand on a stage and speak. But little does Harvey realize, the most serious danger comes from within. As conservative supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) becomes more and more marginalized, he becomes more and more hostile toward his nemesis, so he tragically takes the life of Harvey Milk (not a spoiler, I promise).

“Milk” works because it’s the story of a true underdog. Harvey faces real odds, both in getting elected and stopping Prop 6. It’s not a surprising story, but it’s very well-told, and it’s hard not to root for Harvey in his quest for equality.

The best part of “Milk,” however, is Sean Penn’s career-defining performance. He won the Oscar for Best Actor (after a very tight race with Mickey Rourke), and I couldn’t have been happier. He inhabits his character completely and brilliantly. Gone is Penn, and the baggage he comes with. We aren’t watching him on screen. He’s Milk through and through.

The rest of the ensemble is excellent, as well. Josh Brolin received a deserved Oscar nomination for his portrayal of White. It’s a tough job. What White does is absolutely deplorable, but we sort of see what drove him to it. That doesn’t excuse it, but we feel a twang of sympathy for the man on more than one occasion. James Franco gives his best performance to date as Scott. He senses he is losing Harvey to the movement, so he leaves at one point. We don’t see a ton of him after this, but whenever we do, the looks on his face are heartbreaking. Harvey will be with other men (as will Scott), but they both know who their soul mate is.

This film also serves as a reminder of Gus Van Sant’s tremendous directorial skill. After years of very small independent flicks, he returns to the mainstream with this, and he hasn’t a thing. If anything, his time experimenting has made him braver and surer of himself. His ability to flawlessly integrate actual footage into the film makes it all the better. And he thankfully keeps the schmaltz to a minimum.

I could go on and on about this great film. I’m really not a fan of the biopic genre. Too often, films of this nature rely on cliché after cliché and don’t try anything exciting. While the story is familiar here, I think what Van Sant has done is special. He chose the perfect cast and crew, and makes excellent use of his own directorial skills. Milk’s was a story I knew nothing about, but now it’s one I think everyone should know and take to heart, for it’s more than just a story about a man; It’s a story about hope.

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