Release Date: November 26th, 2008 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Gus Van Sant Actors: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O’Hare, Joseph Cross
us Van Sant’s “Milk” is a commanding and persuasive biopic that is easily the best thing to come from the hit-or-miss director in a very long time. Beautifully edited and sublimely acted, the film’s only real flaw is its attempt to focus equally on both Harvey’s personal life and his political involvements. Though idle in a couple of spots, few historical biographies are as fulfilling, entertaining, and thought-provoking as this contemporary masterwork, which is not only theatrically well-timed but also exhibits significant hardships that have still not been overcome – 30 years after the events took place. And, of course, praise goes to Sean Penn, who has yet again delivered a tour de force performance that is not likely to be bested before the year is up.
“Milk” begins in 1978, with the San Francisco Supervisor recording a message to be played only upon his death. From there, the film travels back in time to chronicle the extraordinary life and career of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay person to be elected to a public office in California. From his eye-opening 40th birthday in 1970 to his rise to the city council in 1977 to his uncomfortable association with conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin), Milk’s major battles against gay rights suppression (including the Briggs Initiative and the Save Our Children campaign) are given a powerful treatment.
In Harvey Milk’s personal life, several characters and occurrences aren’t always depicted with enough attention, which hints at scenes being cut or a time limit imposed on those elements. Supporting character Jack Lira (Diego Luna) feels more like an afterthought, even though his role in real life would have been more prominent to Milk’s actions. But aside from such trivial flaws, the star talent behind the film gives it its lasting power. Sean Penn nails the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of Milk with uncanny precision, while Josh Brolin, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, and Emile Hirsch deliver sharp performances as supporters and dissenters.
The re-creation of the locations and the era are also masterfully attended to (Milk’s actual camera shop was rented for shooting), providing a flavorful sampling of an influential period and a vivid illustration of a pioneering man. In a two-decade stretch of attempting to get a film about the “Mayor of Castro Street” made, in which numerous directors and actors were scheduled to contribute, Focus Features has won out with this script by Dustin Lance Black. It’s a testament to the storytelling that Harvey Milk’s assassination is revealed almost immediately at the start, yet knowing his tragic fate won’t deter audiences from investing in his plight. With award-worthy performances, a surprising amount of humor, and a powerful message of endurance against endless adversity, “Milk” commands the attention the political activist and beloved martyr achieved in real life.
– The Massie Twins