Monday, April 5, 2010

"Milk" (2008)

"Milk" (2008)
Starring Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Directed by Gus Van Sant

It's really hard to separate my own politics from "Milk."  I feel strongly about bigotry against homosexuals.  I feel there are few things more cowardly or hypocritical than hatred of the gay community.  So as I watched "Milk," I wanted to approach it from the point of view of its merits as a film - is it well written, well shot and edited?  Are its characters true?  Are its performers committed and passionate?

The answer to all of those things is yes, but on the other side of the coin, it's impossible to separate "Milk" from the politics.  The message of Harvey Milk is bold and strong, one of pushing toward an ideal of equality, toward putting your life and your lives on the line for love, for honor, for hope, and for everything that humanity should be to each other... and tragically, rarely is. 

Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) is a homosexual man working at some corporate monkey job when he meets Scott (James Franco) on the eve of his 40th birthday.  The two of them hit it off, and Milk decides to open a small camera store in an area of San Francisco known as Castro.  Encountering resistance to joining the local merchants association, he decides to create his own - one that will further the interests of and protect local gay and gay friendly businesses.  As his successes mount, and his support grows, his ambitions for a better tomorrow for the gay community lead him to attempt higher offices.  Milk assembles a team of young, passionate activists, and after some political maneuvering and redistricting, Milk is elected to a city supervisor position in San Francisco.

When a state senator, John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) proposes sweeping legislation that would cause gays all over the state and any who support them to lose their jobs, Milk's fight for gay rights becomes a nationwide flashpoint - success could lead to a brighter, hopeful tomorrow... but failure could mean the destruction of countless livelihoods, not just in California, but all across the United States.

Of course, there's a lot of grand political talk in "Milk" about what all this means, but through it all, the dramatic focus remains on Harvey Milk, the person.  For all his fame as an activist, "Milk" portrays Harvey as a sincere, emotional and passionate do-gooder.  Sean Penn completely disappears into the role, and he's not the only one.  A mixture of familiar faces and no one you've ever seen before, the cast of "Milk" is absolutely first rate.  Each and everyone of them comes across as a real person, not someone spouting lines written in a Hollywood office.  Josh Brolin as Milk's troubled rival (and ultimate assassin) Dan White also delivers, his frustration and jealousy of Milk's successes, and even a little bit of paranoia, come across as natural and frightening. "Milk" simply rings true as a movie, both from its performances and in a technical sense.

Shot to look intentionally gritty, with film flicker and all, director Gus Van Sant gives the entire film the feel of watching a documentary.  You may forget at times that you're merely watching a dramatization.  Actual news footage from the 1970s is blended almost seamlessly into the newly shot material, and digital trickery in crowd sequences is unnoticeable. Is "Milk", as a film, unassailable?  No, but what film is?  There are moments here or there the film could lose, and Milk's attachment to a young gay man who eventually commits suicide isn't much fleshed out to my liking.  But these are, ultimately, minor quibbles in an otherwise powerful and entertaining two hours.

But yes, "Milk" has a message.  I can't ignore it, I can't separate myself from what this movie is trying to tell me - that Harvey Milk was a hero, that the things he had to say about people, about equality and about freedom are things we should still be listening to 30 years later.