Sat 20 Dec 2008
Then, Mama Fratelli and her sons tied us up on a pirate ship …
2008 GOLDEN MUG NOMINEE:
Best Actor (Sean Penn)
Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin)
Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black)
“My name is Harvey Milk … and I want to recruit you.”
With those words, gay rights activist and the first gay man elected to public office, Harvey Milk, would often begin his speeches. In the 1970s, he was at the forefront of the gay rights movement and realized that only by being out in the open and trying to change the system from within would any real legal protection and positive public perception become reality.
Director Gus Vant Sant, utilizing an excellent script from Dustin Lance Black, has assembled one of the finer bio-pics in the last few years with “Milk”. He has momentary switched gears from ultra small independent features with relative unknowns and crafted a film than deftly covers the joys and pitfalls of Harvey Milk’s rise from concerned citizen to San Francisco city supervisor.
To tackle such a prominent figure, Sean Penn came aboard. Always known for his diligent attention to detail, Penn does not disappoint. He portrays Milk beautifully and makes it very easy to understand how he galvanized the people (gay and straight) in the Castro district of San Francisco into action.
James Franco delivers a surprisingly heartfelt performance as Milk’s long time boyfriend. Normally, I dismiss his performances as he tends to tear up in every other scene whether its called for or not, but here I see the spark that others must see in him to get cast as often as he does. While supportive of Milk, seeing him struggle with the rigors being the family of someone running for political office is probably the high point of his acting career.
James Brolin, as Milk’s fellow city supervisor Dan White, tends to provide solid performances time after time and has done just that here. Instead of portraying him as a one-dimensional bigot (as lesser actors and directors may have done), Brolin shades White as a man who wants to do right but finds himself trapped by his own pride and fear. In other years, saying he was a near lock for pretty gold statuettes would have been much simpler. He still has a chance this year but the signs aren’t so easy to read.
The rest of the supporting cast do a decent job, for the most part, but its the other elements to the production that cement the quality of “Milk”. First, there’s the excellent score by Danny Elfman which didn’t sound like any of his more recognizable Tim Burton or comic book movie compositions.
Then there’s the excellent production design, especially in light of its estimated $15 million budget (which is not a lot for period films). While I’m sure there are eagle eyed individuals who found elements that weren’t time appropriate, it all worked quite well for those of us not so interested in finding these details. From costumes to hair and make-up to set design, the crew should be quite proud of their efforts.
If I have any reservations about the film, it lies in Diego Luna’s nearly one note performance as he comes off like a petulant child most of the time and in the canonization of Milk that probably goes a step too far. I’m not knocking anything he did, and the world would probably be a better place if more people took civil rights as seriously, but as the film presents him, he is so virtuous that only Mother Theresa would give him a run for his money. I seriously doubt too many politicians (no matter their path into office) are so squeaky clean.
Still, that doesn’t deter me from declaring the film a resounding success. The message of tolerance embedded in the film is far more timely, in light of recent California legislation, than the filmmakers may have intended (since it takes so long to get a movie made from concept to screen) but that only works in its favor. Van Sant has yet again delivered a superb product and Penn, Franco and Brolin all deliver outstanding performances. “Milk” gets a very solid 4 out of 5 and I highly recommend checking the film out.