December 1, 2008

Milk Quenches Thirst for Social Commentary

by Jordan Coughenour

An epic portrayal of the man who first embodied the word "hope," Director Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk, following the late Castro Street politician who became the first openly gay man ever elected to public office, is easily one of the most socially important and impactful films to arise out of Hollywood studios in recent years, and an undeniable contender for multiple Oscar nominations this season. Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) seems to have finally learned the essential skill of relinquishing complete control as a director, leading several of Milk's actors to execute masterfully unhindered performances, resulting in an engaging character study framed by the suddenly newly relevant gay civil rights movement in late 1970's San Francisco.

Milk's release date (although the film debuted in San Francisco on Oct. 28, before the fall elections, it did not go into limited national release until Nov. 26) tragically prevented the film from affecting the recent passing of California's Proposition 8. (For more on Prop. 8 please see: "California's Proposition 8 TV Ads" and "Proposition 8: Where's the Outrage?") That ballot initiative banned gay marriage in California. Moving in parallel, much of the movie deals with Harvey Milk's organization of protests against 1977's Proposition 6 in California, which would have fired homosexuals from teaching in the public school system. The film is one of the most effective framings of a social movement ever crafted; with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black working in an artful balance between historical fact, yet leaving spacious breathing room for the audience to follow the personal struggles of those involved in the gay civil rights battle of the time. One of the strongest of these decisions comes with Van Sant's frequent use of vintage newsreel footage and photographs to overlap the staged action; notably choosing not to cast an actor as the religious anti-homosexual warrior Anita Bryant, but rather to confine her presence to actual television interviews, leaving apt room for the film's central cast members to play.

Frequently falling victim to bloated speeches and weepy plot lines, Sean Penn (All the King's Men, Mystic River) is at his strongest point in years as politician Milk. Penn delivers a vocally and physically nuanced performance worthy of serious Academy Award consideration. He joyfully captures the hope and fervor of Milk, acting without fear or imposition in his portrayal. Penn's finest moments are the quiet pauses between the rallies and addresses; where he shows Milk's constant battle between his love of operatic theatricality and inward soul searching in an oppressive world. Neither Penn nor Van Sant ever shies away from the uniquely sexual lifestyle of Milk and those around him. From the first moments, as the film begins on the eve of Milk's 40th birthday and primary encounter of lifelong love, Scott Smith, viewers can expect to be invaded by a barrage of sensual portrayals, none lacking in psychological connotation or amorous necessity. These men who revolved around Harvey throughout his life make for a notable supporting cast to Penn throughout the film. James Franco as Scott Smith shows fluidity and able passion in a performance as Milk's sensual yet wary boyfriend, acting as something of a guardian angel throughout the course of the movie. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Speed Racer) is a peppy and energetic presence as the young activist Cleve Jones, who in the years after Milk's timeline concludes, went on to create the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Hirsch is completely unhinged and nearly lunatic in his portrayal. In many of the movie's darker moments, Hirsch is a continuous shock of lightning, pertaining well to one of the actual Milk's frequent calls to, "Never blend in." One of Milk's more notable strengths lies in Josh Brolin (W., No Country For Old Men). Brolin plays City Supervisor Dan White, the eventual assassin of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. In making the wise decision to not leave White to the sidelines as a shadowy harbinger of death, Van Sant grants the audience a delicate view into the gradual formation of a bigot. Brolin's carefully constructed progression as a character should reap some possible benefits for Brolin come Oscar nomination time too. Though the basic subject matter of the film itself demands a liberal viewpoint, Van Sant uses White's arc to give the other side of the issue its due course of argumentation. It's nearly as much of a shock to a truly engaged audience member as it is to Milk himself when White does eventually pull a trigger on Moscone, igniting one of the country's most heart wrenching double homicides.

Given Harvey Milk's constant search for a stage and enough theatricality to keep the world enraptured, it's of considerable notation that Milk's core manages to be so subtle and pure. Past the grand narrative of a social movement, lies the heart of both the issue itself, as well as the basic grappling with humanity that ensures no matter what legal jurisdiction ensues, all men are still created equal. It's the intimate moments, such as when Milk and Smith enjoy a candlelight dinner with the pressure of political duty pervading the air, or when the previously aimless wanderer, Jones is handed his first bullhorn and enlisted to active duty just prior to Milk's death, ringing true to his signature speech-starter "My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you." You'll have a hard time walking out of the theatre without the need to pick up a picket sign and head into the streets yourself. Milk is, overall, a powerful testament that though over three decades have passed, the continuous struggle for equality continues in the gay community to this day.

(Editor's Note: This piece is also cross-posted on the iVoryTowerz blog.)

(Milk goes into full nationwide release in the U.S. on Dec. 5. The film is rated R. The promotional film poster is from Focus Features. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)

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