Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Premise: A biopic of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay rights activist and the first openly gay elected official in California.
What Works: Milk is a smartly assembled film, using Milk’s tape recorded memoir to narrate and structure the story, showing the political maturation of a man and a movement. The picture moves through expository information very well, showing the intricacies of Milk’s political decisions and how he weighed and balanced his political desires with his integrity. The screenplay and Sean Penn’s performance present Harvey Milk as a crafty politician but also as an earnest but flawed human being. Although he is able to maintain his integrity, Milk struggles to balance the professional and the personal and his love life is often impacted by his political life. These sacrifices give Milk’s struggles a personal cost that pays off and increases his heroism and raises the stakes through the first two acts of the story. Milk builds nicely into its final act as Milk leads a struggle against Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that would have prevented openly or suspected homosexuals from holding jobs in schools. This ratchets up the stakes and draws on the characters and strategies established in the first two acts of the picture, linking the specific political struggles of Milk’s career with the larger cultural movement toward equality and fairness. The film’s portrayal of homosexuality is one of the most progressive of any recent film as it displays the issue without dwelling on it unnecessarily but also refusing to shy away from moments of affection between Milk and his partners. The film is also a period piece and it shows the homosexual subculture of San Francisco in the 1970s and how that subculture interacted and in some cases clashed with the dominant culture and how both were changed by their interactions. Aside from Penn’s performance, which is very strong, the film also features a terrific supporting performance by Josh Brolin as San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White. Brolin has a very interesting approach to the character; he does not play White as a raging homophobe or as an overtly corrupt politician but a man who relinquishes control over his life and allows himself to be sucked into a funnel of anger, envy, and irresponsibility. The film’s finale is tragic but Milk is able to shape the events dramatically to create meaning out of it and end on a message of hope.
What Doesn’t: Milk goes through most of the typical rounds of a political film. What the picture does with the familiar is extraordinary but much of it is still familiar.
Bottom Line: Milk is a terrific political film and a very timely picture. It takes a hold of a political story and shapes it into a film that is extremely well crafted and emanates a light of hope not only for homosexuals but for all who care about equality and justice.
Episode: #224 (January 25, 2009)