Sunday, September 23, 2012

Every Bit The Winner You Might Have Heard, Milk Chronicles An Important American History Struggle!

The Good: Great acting, Decent directing, Engaging story, Good character development.
The Bad: Slight pacing issues
The Basics: Sean Penn's performance as gay right's activist and perennial San Francisco political candidate Harvey Milk lives up to its hype in Milk, now on DVD!

I loathe returning to my home town every year around the winter holidays. Sure, many people may dislike the journey or getting caught up in old roles with family members. I can't stand the newspaper in the city I grew up in. Since they got rid of their regular movie reviewer, the reviews are done by a hodgepodge of syndicated sources and their digest of movie listings (which includes ratings from the critics) is abysmal. Looking at the paper around the holidays is to be forced to consider that perhaps all of the movies out are being rated on a scale of ten (if you didn't read that right, go back and try again. Yes, it's not a scale of one to ten . . .). Around the end of the year, during what I cynically call "Oscar Pandering Season," the reviewers seem to get lazy and rate everything a "10." I can't stand that. Occasionally, that means I'll withhold a review of a great film just to not mistakenly get lumped in with those praising everything.

A couple years back, one of the films I waited to review was Milk and now with it out on DVD and me not wanting to wait for Gay Pride Month, I decided it was a good time to get mine posted. For the bottomline first, the hype surrounding Milk is worth is; Sean Penn is amazing, the film is important, but it is not perfect.

Shortly before his assassination, Harvey Milk sits at his kitchen table and contemplates his life as an activist for gay and lesbian civil rights in San Francisco. Starting then in the early 1970s in New York City, Milk turns forty and picks up Scott Smith. Their relationship takes them rapidly to San Francisco where the two set up a camera shop in the Castro district. Milk soon sees the inequities of how gays are treated in the area, including acts of police brutality. Determined to change things, Harvey Milk runs for one of the trustee positions on the City Council.

Milk loses and he continues fighting the good fight, building a political machine for the primarily gay Castro district for almost a decade. He makes powerful allies and when the time comes, he makes a powerful enemy on the city council in Dan White. As the political fights drive Scott away, Harvey develops a romance with a much less stable man and as change slowly comes, reactionary elements in the United States rise up to menace the progress Milk and his followers make in California.

Milk is a triumph of character and an argument for the inalienable human rights of all Americans, not just white heterosexual males. Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk as an average man in love who is treated poorly for who he loves. He organizes as a businessman would, quickly determining which businesses in the area are gay friendly and which are not and organizing the community around the principle of spending money to promote social justice. FYI, it is still a philosophy that works! Milk evolves from a radical who looks outside the mainstream into a politician who becomes slick and organized without ever losing touch with his base.

What is perhaps most important about Milk is that the film manages to make its statements while still being entertaining. The character struggle and journey of Harvey Milk is a compelling one. Writer Dustin Lance Black and director Gus Van Sant make the journey more than a preachy diatribe on gay rights, instead focusing on the dynamic man Harvey Milk was. As his personal life becomes complicated, his political career takes an upswing, the friendships and relationships offer wonderful contrasts and the viewer feels the tension Milk does as he is pulled in different directions.

As well, there is something entertaining watching Penn as he completely becomes Milk. Harvey Milk's rhetoric quickly becomes a universal call for human rights, not just a cry of "we're here, we're queer, get used to it." In fact, outside the film's earliest moments when those who might be squeamish about two men kissing might become uncomfortable, the film presents a remarkably sexless and surprisingly neutral take on homosexual love. Instead, the film becomes about social movements.

As a result, Milk and Harvey Milk become obsessed with creating infrastructure, improving upon failed attempts and growing to change the institutions of oppression. Milk is likable, utilizing a network of people who come to believe in him and the way the film is shot, we want to believe in him. Indeed, as the film goes along - and there are some slower points that allowed me to detach from the film to consider it - I began become increasingly depressed knowing that Milk was rushing toward his death (a fact revealed in the first two minutes of the movie).

Sean Penn is appropriately brilliant as Harvey Milk, creating a distinctive body language for the character that is looser than anything I've seen Penn in before, until Milk steps into a public setting. There, Penn adds tension to Milk's upper body and he holds himself with dignity and an awkwardness that is palpable. This might well be the performance of Penn's career, rivaling that of his work in I Am Sam (reviewed here!).

As well, Milk utilizes its supporting cast amazingly. Josh Brolin plays White with an unsettling quality that makes him a surprisingly good villain. Indeed, Brolin's performance here illustrates to me that he was woefully miscast as George W. Bush in W. (reviewed here!) because here he is able to throw his body into the performance and make himself appear nervous, uptight and troubled. Alison Pill is charming and realistically efficient at Anne Kronenberg and James Franco gives a performance that is likely to surprise most of the fans of his stoner comedies.

On DVD, Milk includes an insightful commentary track from director Gus Van Sant. As well, there is a tribute to Harvey Milk featuring some of the people who are portrayed in the film. The film is a little light on bonus features, but given that it is a drama and not a big special effects movie, this is understandable. Fans of the film will find a little extra value in the bonus features. Unfortunately, the DVD does not have Sean Penn's acceptance speech from when he won the Best Actor Oscar.

Ultimately, Milk is a socially important film which is unfortunately still teeming with relevancy now. As times change and the United States looks to grow and build, gay and lesbian civil rights continue to come up as an issue and until all people are granted equal rights under the law, the United States fails to live up to its potentials. We don't need Milk to teach us that, but it is refreshing that those of us who believe in the universal promise of the American dream have a film like Milk to remind us that progress can be made and change is inevitable.

For other political movies, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Fahrenheit 9/11
All The King’s Men


For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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