Film Reviews

MILK

By • Nov 28th, 2008 •

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Sean Penn delivers a brilliant, transformational performance.

MILK director Gus Van Sant did an awkward, PR guest shot on the season finale of “Entourage,” turning down Vince Chase for a role. He passes Vince’s “B-roll” to Martin Scorsese who then casts Vince in his new film. Everywhere I look – I was at a christening last week… – I see Martin Scorsese.

MILK is the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay activist in the 1970s, who was assassinated along with San Francisco’s Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) by another disgruntled city supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin). Harvey Milk knows he is a historical figure, and makes a tape recording chronicling his life; and here, he narrates the film.

Harvey’s story begins when he decides to open a camera shop on Castro Street with his cute boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco). Soon the camera store becomes a hub for the outcast gay community and gay activism. Harvey works for eight years to be finally elected to public office with the help of his devoted friends, Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, who starred in director Sean Penn’s INT THE WILD); campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) and others. When long-suffering Scott leaves Harvey, he takes up with an indulgent young man, Jack Lira (Diego Luna).

Availing himself of archival footage, Van Sant (who directed the insufferable GERRY and the shot-for-shot remake of PSYCHO that was doomed before filming even began with the casting of too big Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and sexless Anne Heche as Marion Crane) leaves nothing to cinematic dramatization. It all looks and sounds real. MILK is a compelling, important story, and well directed. However, it is Sean Penn who galvanizes and inhabits the persona of Harvey Milk.

If you are a Sean Penn fan, you will see how truly brilliant an actor he is. (I forgive him the unintentional funny I AM SAM.) Every movement, phrase, look, and desire is true to the character. Penn has transformed himself into Harvey Milk. He leaves nothing of Sean Penn on the screen. He appears small and fragile, and gives Harvey Milk a charismatic presence that allows you to believe he was the spark that mobilized S.F.’s gay community. Outwardly gay, Harvey eclipsed into a crusader and refused to be swayed or play the political game of “one hand washes the other”.

Unlike Will Smith, who was hired and paid to play a gay hustler in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION but refused to kiss another man as required by the script, Penn does not hesitate to play a sexually active, modern gay man. In fact, it is rather shocking. Van Sant doesn’t shy away from the reality of the 1970s Castro Street hedonistic lifestyle. There is no moralizing here.

And what of Dan White? Incredibly, one sympathizes with him. Not as a killer, but the position he found himself in up against the media darling that had become Harvey Milk. If only Harvey had been more sensitive to the conundrum of Dan White and given him a crumb from his banquet table. But Harvey had no patience for massaging Dan White’s ego. I have intimately known many, many gay men. I understood Harvey Milk’s cruel indifference to Dan White.

The fact that the script, director and especially Josh Brolin allow us to see Dan White as a conflicted character is a credit to them. Unfortunately, Dan White’s “Twinkie Defense” and insignificant prison sentence brings the audience back to Harvey Milk and the injustice of his death.

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