Friday, November 28, 2008

Rich Legacy

Directed by Gus van Sant
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Alison Pill
Opens November 26, 2008

Penn (center) in Milk
In Gus van Sant’s Milk, Sean Penn adds to his indelible–and still-growing–gallery of eccentric, larger-than-life characters.

To review: Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California, voted to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978, after several years as an activist and business owner in the city’s Castro neighborhood. He’s more famous, however, for his death: Milk was fatally shot in November 1978 by a colleague, Dan White, who also killed the mayor, George Moscone, and used the now-legendary “twinkie defense”—arguing that a junk-food diet led to his declined mental state–at his trial.

But Van Sant doesn’t dwell too much on that part of Milk’s story—rather than making a cautionary tale, Van Sant primarily shows Milk’s legacy as a gay rights activist, a story that’s especially poignant in light of the recent passage of California’s Proposition 8, banning gay marriage.

Milk begins in New York City on the eve of Harvey’s 40th birthday. The opening scene introduces a gay man very much a product of his time: exiting the subway, Harvey confidently picks up Scott Smith (James Franco), who would become his long-time boyfriend. Starting the movie in such daringly in-your-face fashion works because it also introduces Harvey’s personality–fiery and confident, endlessly charming and charismatic, all qualities that would come to the fore when he moves to San Francisco and becomes a seminal gay-rights advocate.

Milk is not simply a by-the-books biopic, candidly showing Harvey’s change from carefree swinger to socially-charged, influential politician. Dustin Lance Black’s literate, entertaining script uses Harvey’s final recorded testament–which he taped, ironically, just prior to his death–as a narrative device: we keep returning to Harvey sitting at his kitchen table and talking seriously about his life as the film’s biographical scenes play out chronologically. It sets the right ominous tone that hangs over, but never overwhelms, the rest of the film.

A straightforward biography, Milk encapsulates a specific time and place, providing a history lesson to those unfamiliar with the past 40 years of gay rights successes and failures. Those who intimately know the subject or its protagonist might think Milk doesn’t show anything new or insightful, but this film was made for middle America, for the vast swaths of this country where minds need to be changed, even a little bit.

Happily, Van Sant has shed the arty pretentiousness of his last few nearly unwatchable films, Elephant, Gerry, Last Days and Paranoid Park, which smothered their dramatizations of alienation and death in flashy visual techniques that were a fatal distraction. Those films’ adherents may not be too thrilled by this very Hollywood piece of moviemaking, but Van Sant adroitly balances the personal and the soap box in Harvey’s important story.

Sean Penn’s Harvey is more than a mere martyr. The actor channels the exhilarating life force that Milk must have been–gregarious and friendly, pushy and combative, loving and faithful–through the huge smile that envelopes his entire face. By allowing Harvey to inhabit him, Penn paints another unforgettable portrait.

The large–and largely superb–supporting cast is anchored by Allison Pill’s gutsy Anne Kronenberg, who became Harvey’s campaign manager; James Franco’s sympathetic Scott; and Josh Brolin’s chilling Dan White, a character in the shadows of Harvey’s story until he bursts out, shooting his way into infamy. In Milk, Van Sant, Penn and company give Harvey the legacy he richly deserves.

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