Milk (2008) (R)

Gus Van Sant's body of work is a complicated mess at best. From revered works like "My Own Private Idaho" to the notorious remake of "Psycho" to the much debated "Elephant", the director seems to have no specific style nor presence. His works aren't immediately recognizable and his flair for the dramatic can seem, at best, typical. Yet this is a director who has amassed a following over the years. His touch is unforgiving, his emotions are clear, and his points are never muddled. With "Milk" Van Sant gives us one of his finer movies about one of the heroes of the LGBT community, Harvey Milk.
Working from an Oscar winning script by Dustin Lance Black (better known now for being British diver and heartthrob Tom Daley's boyfriend), Gus Van Sant and team assemble a huge cast of the most ambitious nature to try to tackle something that the Academy Awards had already seen—at the center of it all is Sean Penn.
The key to the success of "Milk" is Sean Penn's performance. I know that the James Cameron effect has set in and it's not longer "cool" to like Sean Penn, particularly given the man's quirks; but you cannot deny his immense talent. Just look at his two most remembered performances. You have "Mystic River" in which he is a out-for-justice grief stricken father, and then look at "Milk", where is a soft and sensitive, fight to the death gay activist. He nails this role, it's one of the finest examples of mimicry in film to date. It's on the same level as Helen Mirren's role in "The Queen" or Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi".
Drawing most of its story from the documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk", "Milk" begins as Harvey moves out to San Francisco with his lover Scott (James Franco). At forty years old, he thinks that he's done nothing with his life and decides to start anew. Moving out west he sets up a camera shop and is immediately told that he is not wanted in the neighborhood.
There are two laws: man's law and God's law. Dustin Lance Black almost overplays the anti-religion card; but what saves him is the archival footage of town hall meetings and interviews with the advocates of Prop 6. Their bigotry is evident for everyone to see, it's in the recreations that we sometimes wonder how far the filmmakers are stretching the truth (one particular item that I have a problem with being how the film feminizes/homosexualizes all the anti-gay party mostly making comments about Dan White and the possibility of him being closeted).
Deciding that he wants to make a change in how gays are treated in his neighborhood, Milk runs for public office and loses. He loses a few times, but each by an increasingly smaller amount.
Eventually, he manages to get a seat on city council and that takes him a step closer to the major, who is as progressive as Milk is.
But this story doesn't have a happy least, not a fairy tale ending.
Recruiting young workers, the best example being Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), Milk sets up a new campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), and soon lands himself a place in the press. As a controversial figure and an advocate, Milk is always quoted and always manages to play politics to his whims...he was a ruthless manipulator and while the film does show that, it always shows his more poetic side, the more sensitive side, the more romantic.
Then comes Dan White (Josh Brolin), the man who would change everything. White is the conservative bigot on city council, the one who opposes everything of Milk's just because of spite...well, maybe. The film does state that White was an alcoholic who had family issues; and that he had a personal grudge against much of it is fabricated, I really don't know. I will say that it doesn't feel fake, particularly in the last few minutes.
The performances here are what makes the movie. Sean Penn, Emlie Hirsch, and James Franco being the trifecta of magnificence, each matching their predecessor. They all embody their roles, filing them out under Van Sant's eye.
But the film does have issues, the key ones being stereotyping when none is necessary. Alison Pill's performance as Anne Kronenberg is an example of this.
Besides these little things, "Milk" remains as "The Times of Harvey Milk" did, an important film that humanizes and evokes.

Score: ★★★★

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