Review: Milk

Due to the fact that very few films of worth/notariaty come to my city, my mother and I hopped in the car and went down to Cedar Rapids to see Milk.

This film, is by far, the best one that I have seen this year. Which says something, because Wall-E was excellent.

Milk is a biopic from Gus Van Sant that follows Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay elected official in America, from 1970 until 1978, when he was assassinated. If you are not familiar with the fate of Harvey Milk at the beginning of the film, you shortly find out within the first few minutes of the film with a clip from the day that both Milk and Mayor Mascone (Victor Garber) were assassinated.

The film starts out in a subway station in New York City in 1970. Harvey, the clean-cut insurance salesman, meets hippie Scott Smith (James Franco) shortly before his fortieth birthday. At the suggestion of Scott, they get up and go to San Francisco, where Harvey, the bearded hippie, opens a camera store.

This is in 1972, when The Castro was just beginning to become the gay mecca it is now. Before this point, it was a predominately Irish-American neighborhood. The police rough up the gays, and Harvey decides that something must be done. His first attempt to be elected supervisor fails and he goes back to the drawing board. The next election rolls around and Harvey is seen once again as clean-cut, but this time in a three piece suit. Second election and he loses, but meets a young hoodlum from Phoenix named Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch). Harvey’s third attempt to be elected is to be a state Representative, which he loses.

His persistent nature with politics is deeply admirable, but destroys not only his relationship with Scott, but also with Jack Lira (Diego Luna), whom he meets after Scott leaves him.

In 1977, instead of Scott running the election, Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) is brought in to help run the campaign, which aids in the bringing in of multiple endorsements from newspapers. At the same time, Anita Bryant is on her crusade to take away rights from gays. Harvey is elected as a supervisor, along with conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin). Milk attempts to befriend White in an attempt to gain his support for a citywide gay rights ordinance. However, Harvey backs down with his support to prevent a psychiatric hospital from opening in White’s neighborhood, which causes the White to ultimately become Milk’s key opponent. Harvey also leads an opposition to Proposition 6, a referrendum that would have prevented homosexuals and their allies from teaching in California Public Schools. This is defeated, White resigns, tries to get his position back, and then the already known ending occurs.

The film covers eight years of history in a little more than two hours, yet never drags and keeps on moving. The delightful thing about the script is not just that it keeps chugging along while giving us the life of an incredible man along with a history lesson, but that it also seems real. While most biopics end up feeling like poorly done reenactments on E! The True Hollywood Story, Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black have given us a film that draws us in and makes us feel a part of it all.

All of the actors give phenomenal performances in the film, playing the people as people; not caricatures of the people. But Penn and Brolin give exceptionally intriguing performances.

As Milk, Penn gives a compelling powerful performance of a man that is not played out to be larger than life. Penn manages to show the sympathetic, playful, kind, and passionately angry sides of the individual he portrays.

As White, Brolin portrays Milk and Moscone’s assassin in an undeniably interesting way. He portrays Dan White as a troubled individual that I actually found myself pitying at one point. It is implied that there is something bothering that character, but it is never revealed (very nice and mysterious might I add). White is not portrayed as down right evil, nor is he played as an over-the-top hysterical clown. But as an individual.

Throughout the film, it is repeated that you have to give them hope. This film does just that with the telling of a hopeful yet tragic story of an individual. One has to wonder what Harvey Milk himself would think about the legacy he has left on not just the gay rights movement, but also America.

If you live in Eastern Iowa, I highly recommend that you get in your car and fight Mother Nature to see Milk at the Wehrenberg Galaxy in Cedar Rapids as it ceases running on Christmas day. If you live elsewhere, I highly recommend that you see this film as it captures an interesting moment in history with grace and ease.


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