Monday, December 15, 2008

Milk Is An Excellent Film: Go See It

Combining a cast of highly talented actors with a story based on one of the most compelling political dramas in recent American history, Gus Van Sant's Milk is an excellent film.

The film tells the story of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who was the first openly gay man to be elected to major political office in the United States. Milk's fate is a part of the historical record and a revealing film clip from a news broadcast plays at the beginning of the movie, so mentioning that he was ultimately assassinated doesn't ruin the plot. In fact, his death is used to structure the film. Sitting at his kitchen table, Milk speaks into a tape recorder, preserving a message to be played in the event that he is murdered. In this recording, he recounts the events highlighted in the movie, and thus the action is periodically broken up with a return to this narration.

Starring as Milk, Sean Penn's performance is particularly noteworthy because it showcases his range as an actor. Far from his portrayal as an icy killer with a Boston accent in Mystic River, Penn convincingly transforms himself into a gay-rights activist. And although finding the appropriate mixture of idiosyncratic speech and gestures was no doubt difficult, Penn pulls it off, coming across as obviously gay without crossing over into the realm of excessive stereotype or parody.

Also, fresh on the heels of his outstanding portrayal of George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's W., Josh Brolin also does an excellent job of taking on the persona of Dan White, a conservative San Francisco supervisor who opposes Milk's efforts to protect and expand gay rights in the city. Though present as a foil to Milk, Brolin's portrayal of White is sympathetic, exploring the personal difficulties that led him to behave as he did. Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and James Franco all turn in strong performances as well.

The only downside to the movie is that its structure is dictated by its status as a biopic. From the ways in which characters are introduced to how key events unfold, it is easy to see that Van Sant was attempting to create an entertaining narrative that also teaches some real history and addresses important issues. It's not as though he fails in this - just that the film's sense of its own goals beyond telling a story was apparent. Ultimately, this is a difficulty all biopics face.

Particularly in the aftermath of Proposition 8's recent passage in California, which took away the rights of gays and lesbians to marry in that state, Milk provides a timely look at how far the gay-rights movement has come over the last 30 years. Though there is still a long way to go before gays and lesbians achieve full legal equality in the United States, they are at least now present in all levels of government across the country. None of this would have been possible without the efforts of human-rights pioneers such as Milk. Watching this movie helps a person to appreciate the struggles that had to be fought to get us where we are today.

Regardless of one's degree of familiarity with the story of Harvey Milk, this film is well worth seeing for both its artistic value and social message.

(Cross-posted at the DI's main site.)

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