Thursday, December 18, 2008

REVIEW: MILK (***1/2)

The fact that Gus Van Sant’s new film MILK (***1/2) isn’t great doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Or very, very good. Van Sant, who earlier this year directed the more challenging PARANOID PARK, is back on more commercial ground with MILK, a traditional biopic about San Francisco city politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay politician in the U.S. Sean Penn delivers, as you’d expect, a splendid performance as Milk, and the entire supporting cast, including James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, and Diego Luna all offer fantastic supporting turns. What keeps MILK from reaching greatness is the paint-by-numbers screenplay by Dustin Lance Black. Not that it’s bad; far from it. It’s well researched, the dialogue is sharp, it’s never boring and at times it’s quite fascinating. It’s just that you never learn all that much about who Harvey Milk was as a person. I went into the movie with only a broad-stroke background of Harvey Milk and his accomplishments. And after I left the theater, I couldn’t really say that I learned much more about him other than what I already knew. Still, the film is beautifully put together by Van Sant and his excellent creative team (the incomparable Harris Savides is the cinematographer), and the performances elevate the entire production. However, what makes MILK so important in today’s society is that the messages and ideas that Harvey Milk was preaching are still topical in our landscape today. With the recent passing of Prop-8, this film is as timely as ever.
Harvey Milk stood up for the entire gay community in the United States when nobody else dared to speak up for what they knew was right. This made him both loved and hated; wherever he went and whatever he did, his actions provoked passionate responses from everyone who crossed paths with him. After moving to San Francisco (he grew up in New York), Milk became a gay rights activist and then later, a city politician. After a few attempts, he was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977, which made him the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in our country. A year after his election, he was gunned down by a recently-fired city supervisor named Dan White (Brolin), who also killed city mayor George Moscone. Black’s straight-trajectory original screenplay focuses on the last few years of Milk’s life, and anchored by the conceit that Milk is reciting his life-story into a voice-recorder, the viewer gets treated to a highlight-reel style narrative that touches briefly upon some of his personal relationships as well as his political career. What is missing in depth is made up for in sweep. This is a movie that dispenses a great deal if information, introduces you to a wide range of characters, and lays out the facts cleanly and concisely.

Penn, who will undoubtedly be nominated for Best Actor by the Academy for his searing work in this film, is an actor who knows no emotional bounds when it comes to creating an indelible on-screen character. He embodies Harvey Milk with soul, fire, and supreme confidence. Here was a man who decided that enough is enough – it’s time to set things right for himself and everyone like him. Penn breezes through the film with likable ease, and because death hangs over the proceedings so ominously, there is genuine sadness when he meets his ultimate fate. The other performers are all up to the task as well. Franco, playing Milk’s lover and first campaign strategist Scott Smith, gives one of the best performances of his career; combined with his hilarious turn in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, this is a banner year for Franco. Penn and Franco, from the first scene, generate real on-screen chemistry. Brolin is fantastic as the confused and desperate White, a man who may or may not have been gay himself. The filmmakers certainly feel that White was probably a homosexual but that he was too scared to give into his true feelings and desires. Brolin, in a role that could have been oppressively one-note, brings layers of emotion to the role of White. A supporting actor nomination should be in order. This is also a banner year for Brolin, with this excellent performance as well as his tremendous work in W. Hirsch, who last year set the screen on fire in INTO THE WILD, registers strongly as Cleve Jones, one of Milk’s political strategists. And Luna, playing Milk’s emotionally troubled boyfriend Jack Lira, brings skittish, nervous energy to every scene he appears in; you never quite know what will happen when he’s on screen.

Van Sant has led an extremely eclectic career as a filmmaker. Over the last few years, he’s embarked on some seriously challenging – both narratively and visually – pieces of work, including ELEPANT, GERRY, LAST DAYS, and PARANOID PARK. These films, with their super-long stedicam tracking shots, overlapping and sometimes oblique narratives, and austere style, have often been compared to the work of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, in that they are more interested in mood, atmosphere, and internal, suppressed emotions rather than obvious plot points, easy sentimentality, or external emotional fireworks. But the one thing that MILK shares with these more experimental efforts is Van Sant’s fascination with death, and how death lingers over everyone, at all times. Working with master cinematographer Savides for the fifth time (he also shot FINDING FORRESTER, GERRY, ELEPHANT and LAST DAYS for Van Sant, as well as last year’s AMERICAN GANGSTER, ZODIAC, and MARGOT AT THE WEDDING), Van Sant seamlessly blends archival footage with vivid re-creations of San Francisco in the late ’70’s. It’s sort of like a visually thematic cousin to the work that Savides did with David Fincher on last year’s criminally underrated masterpiece ZODIAC. Danny Elfman’s score isn’t intrusive but offers wonderful moments of musical inspiration and Elliot Graham’s fluid editing keeps the two-hour run time moving along at a swift but unhurried pace.

Finally, and even though the screenplay could’ve dug a bit deeper into Milk’s psyche, MILK is an important movie for any number or reasons. Like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, it’s an important step forward for Hollywood in that the studios are finally realizing that they should be making films about the gay community. The fact that Harvey Milk fought against something as inane as Proposition 6 roughly 30 years ago echoes what so many people are going through right now with Proposition 8. Who cares about how someone chooses to live their lives? If they’re not bothering you, then what do you care? If it’s religion, then, well, hey, what the hell can I say? Religion and religious-fueled hatred has tainted so much of our world that I feel we’ll never fully come back from all of it. The people that opposed Milk back in the day, the Anita Bryant’s and Dan White’s, have been replaced by similar fear mongers and cultural haters, both inside and outside of the political world. Harvey Milk stood for something, an ideal if you will. And with an actor like Penn, he of gravitas and generosity, Milk’s legacy gets a powerful moment in the cinematic sun up on the big screen.

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