MILK (Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2008)
The purpose and passion contained in this portrait of the first openly gay politician has gathered such critical and box office buzz that the oft repeated thesis that the vote on Proposition 8 may have turned out differently had MILK been released before the election is far from mere hype.
In Gus Vant Sant’s best film since MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, Sean Penn completely and compellingly absorbs the plucky persona of an ambitious and enthusiastic San Franciscan business man who after a few failed attempts was voted a city supervisor.
With the support of the homosexual community and many sympathetic liberals Harvey Milk fought a fierce battle to defeat Proposition 6 which, if passed, would have discriminated against California public schools hiring gay employees.
The film is framed by a neat natural feeling narration in which Milk records an audiotape relating the story of his political career and a few devastating personal relationships on the side.
Much real life footage is used including footage from news reports of the era and photographs that make up an opening montage showing police harassment of gay bar patrons. We are introduced to Milk as he introduces himself to an easy going hippy played by James Franco who quickly becomes his lover.
They move from New York to California together and the enterprising Milk opens a camera store in a pre-dominantly gay neighborhood. Gay activism helps Milk’s mojo but turns off his companion at the same time he forms heavy alliances including student and later S.F. AIDS Foundation founder Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch with a frizzy fro oddly making him look like a skinny Jack Black).
There is not a wasted moment in MILK as the momentum flows evenly through to our protagonist’s later days. Josh Brolin, obviously now approaching the A-list after lauded turns in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and W., has an effective restless role as Dan White – a fellow Supervisor who assassinates Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).
This last bit is no Spoiler mind you, the film gives us this info up front and I doubt anybody reading this will be unaware of Milk’s fate. With its use of much archival footage seemlessly blended in and touching display of campaign comaraderie it’s a nice companion piece to Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK.
I predict that MILK will dominate the upcoming awards season and deservedly so; very few supposed “event” movies, especially of the historic biopic ilk live up to their billing but nothing here falls short - the acting, the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, the focused film-making, and the choice of era music - even the overused Sly and the Family Stone song “Everyday People” feels right.
The best performance of Sean Penn’s career in the most accomplished and powerful project that Gus Van Sant has ever delivered is so much more than must see cinema. It’s such a supremely entertaining and essential endeavor that it should be classified a mandatory movie.