Movie Review: Milk by uncdiversions
December 21, 2008, 6:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


3.5 Stars

There must have been a time in this country when making an honest movie about homosexuality was a nearly impossible thing to do. Before the sexual revolution, most homosexuals kept the closet door tightly shut, and with everyone in the closet it becomes pretty difficult to know how gay people behave when they’re allowed to be themselves. How can one make an honest movie about someone who’s already putting on a show for society?

Luckily for us we live in a different age, one where Sean Penn can deliver his signature acting performance. This time he’s Harvey Milk, San Francisco city-councilman and the first openly gay elected politician in America. One of Milk’s most important tactics as a gay-rights activist was his firm insistence on visibility, coming out of the closet with no apologies, and encouraging every other homosexual in San Francisco to do the same. It’s a hell of a lot easier to imitate someone who is upfront about his or her sexuality, and Penn takes full advantage of this in “Milk.” What can one say? He’s Sean Penn. Of course he would. But director Gus Van Sant never lets any of his cast drop the thespian ball in this biopic; he avoids overt caricature just as well as he avoids excessive subtlety when it comes to acting out gay characters. The result, and it’s surely no insult, is that the gay characters actually seem gay. “Milk” charts, at a fire-ball pace, the trajectory of its hero’s approximately seven year activist career in San Francisco. It begins in the early 1970’s with his relocation from New York, through his initial campaigns for city councilman, climaxing in his successful push to defeat Proposition 6, the California anti-gay rights bill and spiritual forefather of the recently ratified Proposition 8, and ending prematurely in his murder at the hands of fellow city-councilman Dan White in 1978. Though the film gets a little too sentimental and teary-eyed at the very end, the cinematic biography most truly turns into cinema in the penultimate scenes of Milk’s murder. Here Van Sant wisely abandons his fast-paced, fast-cut history for long shots and slow motion, giving us a thoughtful look at an event so tragic that it cannot be blinked away.

Yet for all the emphasis on the crusader’s trials and tribulations, “Milk” is no hagiography, and Van Sant doesn’t blink when it comes to Harvey’s faults and sins either. Though he was a great activist, the film shows that Milk was far from a great politician. While he had the politico’s knack for self-serving theatricality (sometimes bordering on dishonesty), he lacked the suave, honor-bound deal making of an effective insider. The film suggests that his inability to work with White, well-played by a sympathetic Josh Brolin, was often his own fault, and that White was less a demon than he was a fallen angel. (A devout Catholic, White committed suicide after serving five years in prison for Milk’s murder.) Aside from Penn’s terrific performance, Emile Hirsch has a good turn as Cleve Jones, a jaded young fairy from Phoenix who comes to San Fran looking for fun, not politics. After an initial encounter replete with organic dialogue and easy banter (the movie generally has a stellar script), Jones is eventually drafted into Milk’s political machine, and he would go on, after Milk’s murder, to create the famous AIDS quilt project. Additionally, James Franco plays Scott Smith, Milk’s one-time lover and close friend. Franco’s role is more that of a passive model, and considering Penn’s massive shadow that he’d be working under, it’s just as well. With a look that is both soft and tough, clean and rough, he reminds one of a gay James Dean.

Overall, “Milk” is a conservative biopic that doesn’t take too many chances. Though this won’t seem to mesh well with the life of the pioneer that it documents, it makes for decent watching. A few interesting visual techniques, like the frequent use of reflected images, keep things interesting, but for the most part the film is just a vehicle for historicizing and propagandizing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but “Milk” is made in that Hollywood-liberal way that’s unlikely to win new converts to its cause. Its real value lies in its timing: seeing the defeat of Proposition 6 on film while the marriage-annulments of Proposition 8 are in full swing is a case study in what kind of lessons can be learned from history.

Anyone who wants to know something about the world that they live in should go see this movie.

-Jonathan Pattishall

Editor’s Note: Milk is currently playing at the Varsity Theatre on Franklin St. and (if you’re lucky) in the town where you’re reading this.


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