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Josh Reviews Milk

January 16th, 2009

I often find myself slightly dubious of “important” movies.  You know the type — big, epic movies with SOMETHING TO SAY, that have a habit of coming out late in December in order to be best positioned for maximum Oscar hype.  It is especially difficult to think about these movies after having seen Tropic Thunder, which so thoroughly skewers the pomposity of actors setting out to make IMPORTANT films.

Don’t let such thoughts dissuade you from going to see Gus Van Sant’s Milk.  Harvey Milk, portrayed by Sean Penn in the film, was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States.  In 1977, after several failed attempts, he was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.  Unfortunately, only a year later Harvey was shot and killed, along with San Francisco’s mayor George Moscone, by another member of the Board, Dan White.

Van Sant’s film begins when Harvey, along with his new boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco, a familiar face from Freaks and Geeks and the Spider-Man films), moves out to San Francisco in an attempt to find a better life than his in-the-closet existence in New York City.  We follow Harvey as he gradually gets sucked into the world of politics, realizing the great importance in having a gay man in a position of authority.  We, along with Harvey, experience the tribulations of the gay community, from the persecution they were feeling from the city’s police to the increasing concern about the anti-gay ordinances being proposed and passed in San Francisco and elsewhere around the country.  

Milk is an important film, particularly in light of California’s proposition 8 and similar laws that were voted on in the last election.  But what makes the film work is that it is not a polemic — it is not IN YOUR FACE about its connections to today’s America.  There’s no framing device taking place in modern day, there’s no big speech at the end about the importance of gay rights.  The connection to today’s issues are clear, so Van Sant wisely realizes that the movie doesn’t have to over-state those points — they are perfectly obvious to the audience.  Instead, Van Sant sets out to tell a personal story, about Harvey Milk, a man who doesn’t dream of climbing the heights of of political power but who slowly comes to realize that, for the gay community and for himself, he has no choice but to get involved.  

I have to admit that, while I respect his abilities, I have never been an enormous fan of Sean Penn.  He is an actor of great power, there is no question, but for whatever reason I haven’t usually been able to engage with his performances.  They always smelled a bit too self-consciously of SERIOUS ACTING to me.  But Penn is marvelous here as Milk, bringing a great deal of warmth and charisma to the role.  Harvey Milk is not without his flaws, and the film does not gloss over them.  But the inherent goodness of Penn’s Milk, and the nobility of his cause, was captivating for me.

Penn is well served by his supporting cast.  James Franco has the difficult role — so often played by women in these types of movies — as the partner who is in love with the main character but who just wishes he’d give up his struggles for a simpler life.  It would be easy to become shrew-ish, but Franco is subtle and understated, and does a good job at portraying his connection with Harvey.  I love Victor Garber, and I wish he had more to do in the film, but the glimpses we get of his Mayor Moscone are terrific, bringing impact to his ultimate death.  Josh Brolin has been having a hell of a last year or two (No Country for Old Men, Grindhouse, W.), and he turns in another stellar performance here.  He is able to be both slightly pathetic and also intensely scary, almost in the same moment.  The story of Harvey Milk is one that ends in tragedy, and it is a testament to both Penn’s performance as well as Brolin’s that, even though I know how the story ends, I spent the second half of the film hoping for some other resolution.

Milk is a true story that is well told, and one that has IMPORTANT things to say in today’s world.  Go see it.

COMING NEXT WEEK:  Josh’s “Best of 2008” lists!!  See you then.

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