When “Milk” ended, I didn’t move from my seat. I just sat there and thought about everything that had just hit me. All of the thoughts and emotions and anger that had been evoked. What a fine movie I had just seen.
“Milk” chronicles the life of openly gay politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). The movie takes the shread of biopic formula by starting at a pivotal future point in the character’s life and working backward from there. However, in “Milk” this device feels much less forced. It begins in 1978 not long after Milk has been threatened with an assassination attempt. Fearing his life may soon be over, he leaves a recording of his life and accomplishments.
His first flashback comes from the days before he moved out west. He was a Jewish Long Islander working as an insurance agent on Wall Street, keeping his homosexuality secret until he met and fell in love with Scott Smith (James Franco). Milk, turning 40, realizes he has done so little with his life and decides to move with Scott out to San Francisco.
While living in San Francisco, Milk becomes known as “Mayor of Castro Street.” He helps fight against the oppressing homophobic forces of Anita Bryant and John Briggs. After many failed campaigns, Milk finally won city supervisor and became the first openly gay politician in America. His biggest achievement was fighting Prop 6, which makes Prop 8 pale in comparison.
“Milk” is directed by Gus Van Sant. Van Sant is openly gay himself, and you can see in the final product of the film the great respect he carries for Milk. Every character in it, both straight and gay, is treated with the same level of dignity. Milk was a man who saw that he had done so little in his life and now was a time for change. Van Sant loves the idea of a person turning their life around and seeing that everyone has the ability to change.
Van Sant also puts in his very strange yet creative directing style. Take special note of the phone conversation scene, which reminds me of many avant-garde scenes of “My Own Private Idaho,” yet at times the film is often shot like a documentary. Van Sant adds the same vibrance to the colorful neighborhoods of San Francisco as he did to the burnt out neighborhoods of Portland in “Drugstore Cowboy.”
Of course, what has been admired most in this film is Sean Penn’s performance. And what a performance he gives. He is the rare breed like Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Daniel Day Lewis who have the ability to get inside their character’s skin and be so convincing as them. When looking at footage of the real Harvey Milk, Penn doesn’t just imitate his voice or his look. He takes in every small detail about him whether that be the way he moves his mouth or says a certain word. Penn in this way can totally engulf Milk’s outgoing, one of a kind personality. This is the kind of performance that touches hearts and wins awards.
Penn might stand out, but he does not have the only great performance in the film. “Milk” carries a fantastic ensemble. Franco shows his budding dramatic ability as one of Milk’s boyfriends. Other members of the ensemble include Emile Hirsch as a once insecure gay man who went up to the front lines in Milk’s battle. With this and “Into the Wild,” Hirsch has proved himself to be one of the best young actors out there. Also great is Diego Luna (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”) as Milk’s tortured lover.
Besides Penn, the actor who stands out most is Josh Brolin. Brolin plays Dan White, a political rival who would eventually become Milk’s crazed assassin. Brolin plays the role with a Blagoyevich-like hairdo and a demeanor that seems awkward and harmless at first which then turns awkward, creepy, and very harmful. Brolin conquered George Bush earlier this year and has now conquered Dan White. Brolin deserves an Oscar for this performance.
“Milk” always feels like a Van Sant film, but also at times feels like a Kubrick film (IMDB claims that Van Sant’s favorite director is Kubrick). There is a very effective use of reflection shots. Perhaps those reflection shots represent Milk reflecting on his own life and constantly reflecting on what his purpose is in the world. Milk, for a large part of his life, felt he had no purpose.
The movie contains an operatic score throughout. This is partly because of Milk’s own interest in opera. The film’s use of opera turns Milk’s life story into an opera itself, letting the music inspire the story and the characters as well. It’s almost like how “Ride of the Valkyries” inspired Kilgore on his invasion in “Apocalypse Now” or how Alex felt the desire to commit his vile acts when listening to Beethoven and when Milk saw an opera, he was inspired to stand up for his rights.
“Milk” takes on a new relevance this year with the passing of Prop 8. When an ordinance like that is passed, one can only wonder where is Harvey Milk?
Milk so beautifully captures the great elements that made Harvey Milk such a legend. He became a man who was not afraid to show off who he was and had the sense of humor to enjoy getting pied in the face. We have gotten to know and love Milk so much by the end that his inevitable assassination may become one of the saddest things you’ll ever view on film. But in it is inspired a new hope. Here is a man who died for something. Died for a cause. Died fighting. Gus Van Sant has brought to light a crucial section of history in the battle for civil rights, a man who was truly like Martin Luther King to the gay rights movement. Try not feeling emotionally devastated by the staged and mixed with true life footage of the memorial service for Milk, highlighted by thousands of candles.
Ultimately, every bit of Harvey Milk’s personality can be defined by his reaction to the statement that homosexual relationships are ruining the traditional family and asked if two men can reproduce: “No,” he says, “but God knows we keep trying.”
Recommended for Fans of: My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy, Brokeback Mountain, Braveheart, American Beauty