film review: MILK

Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Edited by Elliot Graham
Cinematography by Harris Savides
Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pil, Victor Garber & Denis O’Hare
Focus Features

[Article originally appeared: http://www.rabbireport.com/archives/2008/12/theatrical-revi-3.htm]

On the heels of Prop 8, comes Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” and without mincing words, it’s a tour de force. The truth is, as big as this movie’s subject matter is – the assassination of San Francisco’s first out gay politician, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) – and as much opportunity as there is to pound in its message, the reason the movie works so well is because it is thoughtful in its telling and its performances are so subdued. A movie along these lines is, frankly, ripe for melodrama but Van Zant goes deeper and puts character before agenda. Early in the movie, Milk literally stands on a soapbox but never for a moment do we get any of the Oliver Stone bombast. Milk intentionally uses his personable nature and humor to reach or rather, create his constituency. It is no doubt something of a defense mechanism. Harvey Milk led a closeted life until he was about 40 years old, which happens to be just when the movie starts. A moment later we see that Milk has been killed and the movie is told in flashbacks as Harvey sits at his kitchen table and commits his story into a tape recorder. His calm narration gives the movie its stabilizing tone.

Josh Brolin & Sean Penn in MILK

We meet Harvey Milk in New York City in the early 70′s on his fortieth birthday. He’s approaching middle age and, as he relates to the young man he picks up on a subway station steps, he wants to do something meaningful with the rest of his life. Coming out is a shock so Milk moves with his new lover, Scott (James Franco) to The Castro, an old Irish Catholic neighborhood in San Francisco. There they open a camera shop, the neighborhood’s first openly gay-owned business. Though shunned at first, Milk quickly builds a gay community there, where they are eventually able to sway business owners through the power of the queer dollar. A natural community organizer and likable soul who appealed to gays and non-gays alike, it was a fait accompli that Milk would run for office and through his charm, he drew a coterie of highly intelligent and dedicated supporters. Using the camera store as his political base, Milk loses his first couple of campaigns but after some redistricting, is elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Read more