Film Review: Milk (2008)

If only people were as united in knocking down Prop 8 in ’08 as they were knocking down Prop 6 in ’78.  Thirty years after the assassination of Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay elected official, intolerance and ignorance is as strong and powerful as ever.  To me, that means this film, although an effervescent celebration of Milk’s life, rings bittersweet at best.  But that doesn’t take away from its being timely and necessary.

Director Gus van Sant, no stranger to individuals and groups on the fringes and at odds with the establishment, is a natural match for Milk’s story.  His use of myriad styles captures the verve and political unrest of late-70s San Francisco, especially along Castro Street.  Van Sant’s tone is unambiguously uplifting, a call to unity.  For the most part, it’s restrained, although preachiness sneaks in every now and then, as does some maudlin tearjerking (helped in no small part by Danny Elfman’s score).

By far the most compelling thing is the performance of Sean Penn, who plays Milk as if joie de vivre oozes out of his every pore.  So often, being a “good politician” implies duplicity, but Penn’s Milk (and I have no trouble imagining the real Milk was very similar) succeeds because his charisma comes from his connection to individual struggles and his willingness to make his supporters’ struggles his own.  As a mover and a shaker, he is both literally and figuratively light on his feet.

All the supporting performances are incredibly well-cast — Emile Hirsch as one of Milk’s closest (and youngest) supporters, James Franco as his long-time partner, Diego Luna as a more mercurial lover.  Josh Brolin portrays arguably the most intriguing character, Dan White, the conservative board member whose shooting of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone seemed driven as much by repressed homosexuality as by political motivation.  Unfortunately, the film perpetuates the urban myth that White’s deserved conviction of first-degree murder was reduced to voluntary manslaughter because his lawyers argued that the violent outburst was due to a diet abnormally high in sugar — this apocryphal argument came to be known as the “Twinkie defense.”

The conclusion of the film is a bit hokey and forced (which only means that its chances for Oscar glory go way up), but that doesn’t detract from the film’s gusto and its moments of emotional power.  If Frank Langella beats out Penn for Best Actor at the Oscars, I just want to see Langella do his Nixon voice in the acceptance speech and announce that Academy members didn’t vote for Penn because they found him “too effeminate”.

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4 comments so far

  1. Blogger's Father on

    But what if Eastwood wins?

  2. Neil on

    Or cutie pie?

    Great review Rich. Understandably I have a lot of personal investment in the film so it’s nice to see a gay-challenged guy agrees.

    Off to see Benjamin Button…

  3. Amanda on

    Love the research in this post!

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m intrigued by your take on the music. Seriously, I am listening to the scores now. Is Danny Elfman known for his tearjerky work? Do you think that shows sloppiness on the part of the director?

  4. AK on

    You’re way too generous with your review.


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