Milk

Movie Information

The Story: Biographical film about gay activist Harvey Milk that charts his life from San Francisco camera-store owner through his rise to political office holder to his assassination at the hands of former council member Dan White. The Lowdown: A spectacularly detailed, warmly human and emotionally charged film centered on an astonishing Sean Penn performance as the doomed Milk. A truly great movie.
Score:

Genre: Biographical Drama
Director: Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho)
Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, Alison Pill
Rated: R

Gus Van Sant’s Milk is a marvel. It may not be quite the best film of the year (I can think of a couple titles that strike me as better filmmaking), but it probably is the most important and most telling one. It’s that rare case where the importance of the subject matter and the importance of the film are on equal footing. Part of this may be wholly accidental on the part of Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, but that hardly matters in terms of the film’s impact.

However intended, its tale of the first openly gay politician waging a battle against a discriminatory amendment, Proposition 6 (which would have allowed teachers—and anyone who supported them—to be fired based on sexual orientation), does coincide with the passage of California’s discriminatory Proposition 8. And it’s eerie and unsettling to encounter the historical arguments for Proposition 6 and realize that they’re absolutely interchangeable with those for Proposition 8. In this regard, Milk poses the question, “Is this as far as we’ve come in terms of tolerance and acceptance?” That the film also happens to be about a politician “selling” hope (“You gotta give ‘em hope”)—and given the results of the recent presidential election—is either happenstance or a feeling for the mood of the day. Regardless, it doesn’t alter the power of the film or its message.

Van Sant, who has spent the last several years making navel-gazing movies that I find verging on unwatchable, has managed to recreate the world of Harvey Milk from 1970 until his (and Mayor George Moscone’s) assassination in 1978 with seeming effortlessness. The film, which includes some archival footage, truly seems to inhabit those times, and that’s a significant accomplishment—as is the fact that Black’s screenplay compacts a complex story into just a bit over two hours. The film starts off by setting the milieu of the era and the place of gays in it, only to jump ahead (copying the opening of Rob Epstein’s wonderful 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk) to news footage of Diane Feinstein announcing the murders of Milk and Moscone to the press. Milk then explores how this came to pass and what it meant and means.

Working from recordings that Milk left behind in case he was assassinated (he always knew it was a possibility), the film is structured around Milk making those tapes—paying particular attention to his stated hope, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” What is most impressive about the resulting film is the manner in which it balances Milk’s private life with his public one, how it manages to encompass Milk the man, Milk the political activist and Milk the martyr for gay rights. That it pulls this off without seeming to try too hard and without making the three aspects of the character so interrelated as to be almost indistinguishable is little short of a miracle. Certain things that make the film work so well can be pinpointed, such as Milk pegging anti-gay activist Anita Bryant’s seeming victory—of getting anti-gay legislation through in Florida—as really a loss for her because of what it would start, which meshes with the aftermath of Milk’s own death. But the film’s cumulative power and its humanity needs no dissection.

The film approaches Harvey Milk in much the same manner that Milk himself chose to attack Proposition 6. Milk’s call was for gays to come out of the closet and reveal themselves so that they would have an identity, so that they weren’t faceless bogeymen, but actual people: people their opponents knew. The film makes Milk into someone you feel you know—and you understand him and see him from every angle, not just the flattering ones. There’s a true sense of a whole human being here: a charismatic, deeply committed man, whose personal life might, on occasion, have been less than orderly, but whose basic decency is hard to question.

Bringing this to life falls in no small measure to Sean Penn. Penn is an actor I often find too ham-fisted for my taste. But his performance here is an absolute revelation. I had no idea—or even suspicion—that he had this performance in him. At no point did I feel I was watching Sean Penn act. I felt that he really was Harvey Milk on that screen—and there’s sufficient archival footage of Milk to be able to make that call. It’s astonishing. The whole cast is good—and each tends to be uncannily like their real-life counterparts—but Penn is the one holding it all in place.

Yes, I’m approaching Milk from my own political perspective, and I’m fully aware that many people are apt to be outraged by the film’s politics and its sexuality. There will be those who are put off by the content. While the film has no explicit sex in it, the same-sex intimacy is very pronounced, and handled in as straightforward a manner as if it involved heterosexual couples. There are those who will hate its agenda—and yes, it has one—but for others, it will be a powerfully positive experience both for its history lesson and for its relevance today. See it—and then seek out the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and see Milk again. You’ll probably want to. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

29 thoughts on “Milk

  1. Sean Williams

    I can think of a couple titles that strike me as better filmmaking

    Just out of curiosity, which titles? I admit that I follow your negative reviews far more closely than your positive reviews. It’s cathartic.

    It’s that rare case where the importance of the subject matter and the importance of the film are on equal footing.

    You can say that again. I know self-proclaimed gay-rights activists who couldn’t stand more than ten minutes of Brokeback Mountain.

    I desperately hope that the Watchmen adaptation will achieve that balance of importance and quality — the original novel certainly did.

    But then I remember that it’s being directed by Zach Snyder.

  2. Louis

    This is what a well crafted movie review is all about.

    Hanke’s got a point of view that he acknowledges up front and then proceeds to effectively defend — along with that of MILK’s — with passionate clarity & concision. Whether we agree with his
    so-called “take” on the merits of MILK the film, while possibly worthwhile, comes in a distant second.

    This review reads not unlike a climactic, passionate closing-argument soliloquy in front of a jury in the defense of an 85-year-old defendent on trial for his life for having carried out the mercy-killing wishes of his termianlly-ill wife of 60 years. The accussed may not be perfect, but you can’t question his passion and his reasoning.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Just out of curiosity, which titles? I admit that I follow your negative reviews far more closely than your positive reviews.

    Well, I won’t go into detail at this point (that’s what Ten Best lists are for), but I’ve said elsewhere that Slumdog Millionaire is the film to beat this year. Milk doesn’t change that, but there are still a few titles to go before that list is firm.

    As for following the negative reviews more closely… well, that’s pretty obviously true of a good deal of my readership. It’s actually a little disheartening. Just look at the responses — both pro and con — and you find far more comments on the bad reviews. If it weren’t for getting reports from theaters — like being told that attendance on Talk to Me went up 59% the day the review came out — I might feel a twinge of “shouting in the wilderness” disease. Yes, I know that the bad reviews are fun and are funnier than than the good ones, but still…

    I know self-proclaimed gay-rights activists who couldn’t stand more than ten minutes of Brokeback Mountain

    Well, they’re wrong, but that’s another matter.

    But then I remember that it’s being directed by Zach Snyder.

    Admittedly, this is not a good sign.

  4. Sean Williams

    If it weren’t for getting reports from theaters, I might feel a twinge of “shouting in the wilderness” disease.

    If it’s any consolation, I plan to see Let the Right One In over Christmas.

    I’ve said elsewhere that Slumdog Millionaire is the film to beat this year.

    Apparently the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures agrees. Slumdog seems to be on everyone’s Top Ten list this year. It’s another film I regret having missed….

    Meanwhile, the L.A. Times has already named WALL-E best film of the year, but I have long since ceased to care about what the critics for the L.A. Times think. This comment would get me crucified in certain circles, but don’t you think everyone gets rather…effusive about Pixar films?

    Well, they’re wrong, but that’s another matter.

    I missed Brokeback, too, so I can’t comment. On the other hand, the last “meaningful” Sean Penn movie I saw was I am Sam, so you understand my skepticism about Milk. But if it thrilled you enough to overpower your misgivings, I’m certain it’s worth a lookasee.

    If the economy forces me to choose between Milk and Let the Right One In, which would you recommend most strongly?

  5. Ken Hanke

    Apparently the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures agrees. Slumdog seems to be on everyone’s Top Ten list this year. It’s another film I regret having missed….

    Well, you haven’t really missed it. It’s barely out. It opens in Asheville on the 19th. This is looking like one of those rare years where my list of films isn’t going to be unlike the majority. Hell, there might even be some clout in my SEFCA votes.

    This comment would get me crucified in certain circles, but don’t you think everyone gets rather…effusive about Pixar films?

    I’ve been saying that since The Incredibles.

    If the economy forces me to choose between Milk and Let the Right One In, which would you recommend most strongly?

    Hands down, Milk, but it seems a shame to miss either. I don’t know if you’re local, but I expect Milk to be around for a month (it opens today), but Let the Right One In I’d guess at two weeks tops (it opens next Friday). But then, Slumdog Millionaire opens next Friday, too. In the meantime, there’s one week’s worth of the utterly startling Synedoche, NY, which starts today.

  6. Steven

    “but Let the Right One In I’d guess at two weeks tops (it opens next Friday)”
    It’s finally coming here?

  7. Ken Hanke

    It’s about time. I thought it would never happen.

    Well, I don’t think it’ll happen for long. I hope I’m wrong, but I simply do not see a big call for Swedish vampire pictures the week before Christmas, especially in light of the big titles of worthy films like Milk and Slumdog Millionaire competing with it.

    In other words, don’t waste time going to see it. And remember — if you’re hoping it’ll stick around a while — that decisions on whether or not a film stays are based on its opening weekend’s business.

  8. Steven

    I’m going out of town two days after its release. I’ll be seeing it on the day of its release. It probably won’t be there a week later.

  9. Sean Williams

    Hands down, Milk, but it seems a shame to miss either.

    Sounds like it. Whichever I don’t see in theaters, I’ll rent a couple months hence.

    I don’t know if you’re local

    I’m not in Asheville itself, no. Actually, the only theater in my area is part of a chain owned by a man who made major donations to the Prop 8 campaign, so it might be a little hypocritical of me to pay him money to see Milk….

  10. Steven

    I saw it last night. I thought Sean Penn was incredible. It’s the second best performance of the year. Most of the people in my theater left crying.

  11. Louis

    Heath Ledger.

    Ledger is chewing scenario Roger-Rabbit style in THE DARK KNIGHT. He’s good, yes, but he’s operating in a parallel cartoon universe where the rules of engagement are turned inside out. As such, there’s nothing “tangible” at stake. As others have pointed out: It ain’t Shakespeare. It’s only because of Ledger’s subsequent death that the performance is perceived to have more gravitas than it would’ve otherwise.

    Movie history is filled with examples, too many to mention here, of actors giving arresting over-the-top performances of memorable “animated” villains — not the least of which is Nicholson as the Joker himself.

    Sean Penn’s Milk has to negotiate a much higher and more precarious high-wire by dealing with two known commodities — reality and history. The conventional and stereotypical pitfall-risks inherent in the prototypical Hollywood “David vs. Goliath” biopic and homosexual cliches are looming behind every corner. Yet, Penn manages to disarm the Milk character — and his rise to prominence — of these corny attributes. He is a man; a real human being existing in our reality.

    It’s a performance that’s so natural it would be tempting to say that Penn’s been hypnotized. It wasn’t until the credits rolled that I realized that, in fact, I was the one who had been under hypnosis.

  12. Ken Hanke

    That was my fear. The further I get from the performance, the less I’m as impressed by it*, but in any case, he’s not being pushed for Best Actor, but for Best Supporting Actor as far as awards are concerned.

    *The whole Dark Knight mania is a little bit lost on me. I don’t even think it’s the best comic book movie of the year.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I knew you would disagree with me. It was expected.

    Well, there’s no harm in that — and there are a lot of people who will agree with you.

  14. TonyRo

    I think Sean Penn is amazing in this movie…deserving of best actor of the year, I think. I didn’t really expect much from MILK and it totally blew me away. The scene where he picks up the phone and talks to the paralyzed kid from Minnesota who wants to kill himself, it moved me to tears. Easily the most important film to see this year.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Easily the most important film to see this year.

    And isn’t it nice that the film itself is so good and up to that importance?

  16. Ken Hanke

    Sean Penn didn’t have to do much acting to play this role.

    I don’t suppose you have any plans on explaining or elaborating on that remark?

  17. irelephant

    Finally, got to see this last night–what a beautiful and sad picture. I loved it.

    It also has the distinction of being Van Sant’s best movie since My Own Private Idaho.

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