Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 1/17/09 w/ Extensive Revisions & Additional Content.
The 2008 U.S. elections saw some big changes that are coming to the country yet to the gay and lesbian community, it seemed to be another setback. Notably in California when the law known as Proposition 8 which bans gay marriages in the state was passed. For many, it was a defeat but the gay and lesbian community to rally on as they are willing to have the same rights as straight people are. Yet, it's amazing how much times has changed for homosexuals more than 30 years ago when in 1978. An openly gay man named Harvey Milk was a San Francisco city supervisor who fought for the rights of gays and lesbians. In that year, he helped defeat a proposition that would've banned gays being teachers in school. Yet, the victory would be short-lived on November 27, 1978. Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone were assassinated by former supervisor Dan White.
Milk would be martyred as he was considered by some as a gay equivalent to Martin Luther King, Jr. in terms of fighting for the rights of people who didn't have rights. In 1984, Milk's story was told through a documentary by Rob Epstein called The Times of Harvey Milk which would win the Academy Award for Best Documentary. With Milk's story proving to be an inspiration, especially with getting the gay and lesbian community to be more political and open to the public. The time has come for Milk's story to be told once again in a feature-length bio-pic helmed by one of American cinema's great voices and openly-gay figures in Gus Van Sant for the film simply entitled Milk.
Directed by Gus Van Sant with a screenplay written by Dustin Lance Black, writer for the TV show Big Love, Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk's life as a 40 year old man with no sense of direction as he and his boyfriend moved to San Francisco. Yet, Milk would start a revolution with a few other gay men and women as he goes into politics determined to help the gay community receive their rights as human beings despite some opposition. Playing the role of Harvey Milk is Sean Penn who leads an all-star cast in this inspirational tale of a man who became an unlikely leader. Also starring James Franco, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, and Josh Brolin as Dan White. Milk is an inspirational yet powerful film from Gus Van Sant.
After living a dreary life in New York City until meeting a young man named Scott Smith (James Franco), Harvey Milk leaves the city to move to San Francisco with Scott in 1970. Changing his look to become more in tune with the times, Milk and Smith open a camera store in the middle of the Castro district as they deal with resistance from the working class community in the area. With gays and lesbians starting to crop up in the Castro, Milk becomes an unlikely leader as he rallies protests and such over beatings. With Smith on his side, Milk takes in a group of young gay men like photographer Danny Nicoletta (Lucas Grabeel), Rick Stokes (Stephen Spinella) and Dick Pabich (Joseph Cross) as part of his team as makes an attempt to run for city supervisor in 1973. After its failed run, Milk returns to his clean-cut look for the 1975 election as his devotion to politics takes its toll on his relationship with Smith.
When a young man named Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) reveals what he saw in Spain involving rioting gays and drag queens, Milk asks him to join his team. Following Anita Bryant's successful anti-gay law campaign in Florida, Milk takes his political aspirations more seriously as Scott leaves as Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) takes over as Milk's campaign manager. With a new approach and a strategy to reach out to voters outside of the gay and lesbian community, Milk's campaign for city supervisor succeeds as he also founds a new Mexican-American boyfriend named Jack Lira (Diego Luna). After getting the job, Milk meets another newly-elected supervisor in Dan White, who is an Irish-American former firefighter who is wary of Milk's homosexuality. Though the two try to work together, Milk is unsure of White's intentions for the laws he's trying to pass as he learns about an initiative called Proposition 6 that bans gay teachers from school.
Leading this initiative is Californian senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) as Milk decides to challenge him to a series of debates. Though it would take some sacrifices to his own personal life as well as his issues with White, Milk would eventually defeat Briggs and his proposition giving gays a victory. Yet, Milk's success would be short-lived following Dan White's resignation over salary disputes where he would target both Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).
Most film bio-pics often stick to a certain formula where it often begins with the person as a child and then grow into this person or that person. This film doesn't exactly stick to the conventions of a typical film bio-pic. Instead, it's about the last years of Harvey Milk from his first meeting with Scott Smith to the huge candlelight vigil after his passing. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black deserves a lot of credit for straying from some of the conventions of the typical film bio-pic by just focusing on the eight years of Milk's life mostly told from Milk's perspective as he's speaking to a tape recorder. It's clear from that opening of Milk talking to his tape recorder is that he's telling the story of those last eight years just before he knows he that he will be killed. Black definitely goes for a structure that is mostly told from Milk but with no voice-over narration. By the second half of the film, Dan White is introduced to get an idea of possible motives that would cause him to kill Milk.
Black doesn't offer any answers into Dan White's motives but it's clear that White is a character who is at times, a bit aloof, ignorant, and often naive while making him sympathetic over what he was going through despite the actions he would cause. The script succeeds in introducing several characters that would be important to Harvey Milk like Scott Smith, Cleve Jones, Jack Lira, and Anne Kronenberg. Though the Lira character is smaller in comparison to Milk's own relationship with Smith, it's really because Black is straying away from convention in having the audience not know a lot about Milk's relationship with Lira. He just shows that the relationship was a brief moment in Milk's life as he's often overwhelmed and distracted by his own political causes that would also drive Scott Smith away early on.
The script truly works in going for convention and going against it as Dustin Lance Black truly succeeds in creating a fascinating story. A story like this would've been more straightforward and dramatic in the hands of a director that would've been more traditional. Instead, in the hands of a revered, unconventional, and engaging director like Gus Van Sant. The film becomes something more as Van Sant goes directly for the story as well as capturing the times of 1970s San Francisco. Using lots of archival footage as well as re-creation of scenes from The Times of Harvey Milk, Van Sant creates the film as if he was doing a history report. What he does is give the audience an idea of what it was like in the 1970s for gays and lesbians just after the time of the Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York City. There was a prejudice towards them from the police as they were arriving in the Castro district while they were being vilified publicly by Anita Bryant.
In telling the story of someone like Harvey Milk, Van Sant definitely recreates the world of 1970 where he unveils Milk as just a regular guy. By the time he got tired of being oppressed by prejudice toward gays, Milk becomes an unlikely activist. Van Sant definitely uses Black's script for structure while using lots of grainy archival footage of the 1970s for an idea of the world that is Castro Street. In some of the scene's marches and protests, Van Sant takes the camera and have the audience be a member of the audience watching Milk talk and get angry over this prejudice. The direction of Van Sant doesn't go for the moody, atmospheric direction of three previous films like Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park. It also doesn't go for total convention with certain shots and placement as he remains engaged into the drama. At times with the use of archival footage edited with the scenes he's re-creating, there's a romanticism of what he was trying to do.
There's times in the film where it could've gone into further, conventional territory like Milk's personal relationships with Scott Smith and Jack Lira but he does it restraint, he finds a balance to focus on Milk's political activism. There's even a scene where Milk gets a phone call from a young gay man that at first, might have been extremely stamped on in terms of dramatic structure. Yet when that individual is revisited later on, Van Sant shows what impact Milk had on one person that could've been anyone. In this film, Van Sant presents a history lesson to audiences while exploring an individual who became this unlikely martyr for gay and lesbian rights. While there's a political message about how far gays had come and what's left to fight for. Van Sant makes a film that is engaging both politically as well as inspiration about one man's fight to make a voice for a group of people who were seeking a voice in times when being who they were was sinful.
Cinematographer Harris Savides, who had Van Sant's cinematographer for several of Van Sant's recent films, does fantastic work with the look of the film. From the colorful, sunny exterior look of daytime San Francisco and the Castro area to the nighttime scenes where with low lights and such, it could be dangerous but also exciting. While Savides also goes for grainy film work with some 8mm, 16mm shots as well as grainy shots in some of the interiors. Savides does some vibrant work in a few party scenes including a church scene while capturing the moment with several shooting styles like tracking shots, steadicams to follow certain characters, and hand-held work as Savides does a superb job with the film's cinematography.
Taking over for Van Sant, who had been editing his own films recently, is Elliot Graham whose stylistic approach of meshing archival footage and the scenes that are being shot are mesmerizing. Even creating a leisurely pacing style that works instead of the methodical, elliptical pacing that Van Sant had done in recent films. Graham's editing is a highlight of the film's technical work as he helps Van Sant in creating the romantic look and feel of the film. Production designer Bill Groom with set decorator Barbara Munch and art director Charley Beal do excellent work in the recreating of 1970s San Francisco with wonderful interiors of the apartments and the camera shop that would be Milk's base. Costume designer Danny Glicker also does excellent work with the 70s style clothes and suits that Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin wears along with some great use of makeup and hair style for the actors.
Van Sant's regular sound designer Leslie Shatz does brilliant work with the location sounds and mixing in some of the interior setting. Notably one of the film's final key scenes where the sound really captures an intense, dramatic moment. Shatz's work is truly masterful in the way she creates an atmosphere in some of the party scenes along with the intensity of the marches that happens in the film. Music composer Danny Elfman does amazing work with the score in the use of some operatic music and pieces to display the drama and tone of 1970s San Francisco. With a soundtrack that includes music pieces from David Bowie, Sylvester, Sly and the Family Stone, and other disco songs. The music in the film definitely captures the times with Elfman's wonderful score underplaying the drama while paying homage to Milk's love of opera music.
The casting by Francine Maisler is spectacular in assembling several actors in various film roles with a few key cameo appearances of Milk's own personnel including Cleve Jones in a cameo while he serves a historical consultant along with photographer Danny Nicoletta providing still photos of the times and the real-life individuals that are portrayed in the film. Small performances from producer Howard Rosenman as a gay magazine magnet who has political ties along with Kelvin Yu and Jeff Koons as a couple of Milk's associates in office. Lucas Grabeel of High School Musical fame is good as photographer Danny Nicoletta while Stephen Spinella and Joseph Cross each stand out in their respective roles as Rick Stokes and Dick Pabich, who are hard-working guys who idolized Milk. Victor Garber is very good in his small role as Mayor George Moscone who finds a political ally in Milk while real-life gay actor Denis O'Hare is brilliant as Senator John Briggs who battles Milk over the Proposition 6 initiative.
Alison Pill is wonderful as Anne Kronenberg, Milk's campaign manager who shakes things up for the campaign that's often run by men as Pill truly stands out in her scenes with Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch. Diego Luna is very good as Jack Lira, Milk's 1977-1978 boyfriend who is forced to deal with Milk's increasing work in politics as he tries to get him at home while being a drunk. Though it's a small role in comparison to the other principle actors including Alison Pill, Luna does stand out in a memorable performance. Emile Hirsch is flat-out amazing as Cleve Jones, a young kid who becomes a passionate activist and organizer who is filled with energy and bravado. It's an amazing performance from Hirsch that is so full of life that he captures every moment he's in where he nearly steals the show from Sean Penn, whom he worked with in Penn's 2007 film Into the Wild.
Josh Brolin is excellent as Dan White, the man who would kill Milk and George Moscone. Brolin's performance is definitely memorable for his restraint and wonderment as a man dealing with a force like Milk while being troubled by the changes around him. It's a mesmerizing performance from Brolin, who has been getting some fantastic work in recent years as Brolin brings depth and some sympathy to a man as reviled as Dan White. James Franco delivers a fantastic performance as Scott Smith, Milk's first real boyfriend who would give Milk a change of scenery while being his early ally. When he and Milk break up, Franco continues to appear as a guy who tries to reason with Harvey as it's a brilliant performance from Franco who really proves to be a solid, impressionable actor that is a true encore to his fantastic work in the Judd Apatow-David Gordon Green collaboration Pineapple Express.
Finally, there's Sean Penn in what has to be his best film role since 1995's Dead Man Walking. Penn, who often plays dark characters in many of the film's he's been in plays a character that is truly upbeat, charming, and thoroughly engaging. In the film, Penn has a smile that warms the audience while making Harvey Milk into an accessible, open-minded, and charismatic figure that anyone would love to be with. In some of the film's political scenes, Penn truly fits in the role of a leader who can organize rallies and marches while displaying the anger of oppression with a lot of passion. In many ways, it's Penn's most accessible role since his 1982 breakthrough in Fast Times at Ridgemont High as it's a real career-defining performance from one of American cinema's great actors.
***Additional DVD Content Written on 9/1/11***
The 2009 Region 1 DVD from Focus Features presents the film in its anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio of 1:85:1 with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound for English & French along with French and Spanish subtitles along with English for the hearing impaired. The DVD includes numerous special features relating to the film and its production.
The first is a 13-minute piece entitled Remembering Harvey is about Milk from the people who knew like former city supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, campaign writer Frank Robinson, photographer Daniel Nicoletta, organizer Allan Baird, Cleve Jones, and Anne Kronenberg. The little featurette discusses Milk’s impact on gay rights as well as what was it like being around him and his personality as it’s a good little piece about Milk.
The fourteen-and-a-half minute Hollywood Comes to San Francisco is about the film’s production as the producers, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the actors (minus Sean Penn), and the real-life people some of the actors play talk about the film and how it brought the 1970s back to the Castro district. Particularly for those who lived in San Francisco at the time giving them a sense of nostalgia while Josh Brolin talks about playing Dan White and re-living the same events that White did which is eerie. The actors talk about Van Sant’s approach to direct actors where he allows them to find the characters while a lot of the younger actors got to meet their real-life counterparts as Cleve Jones, Daniel Nicoletta, and a few others got to make cameos. For James Franco, he went to The Times of Harvey Milk director Rob Epstein for help on researching the Scott Smith role as it’s a wonderful piece about the film’s production.
The eight-minute Marching for Equality is about the re-creation of two key marching scenes with interviews with Cleve Jones and Daniel Nicoletta as they watch the re-enactments while a couple of older extras got to participate as they did many years before. They all talk about the impact of the marches and how much nostalgia it brings to those people who are still alive from that era. The last of the special features are three deleted scenes where the first has Scott comforting Harvey who has been having strange dreams while the second involves an angry Jack venting at Harvey feeling he isn‘t good enough. The third and last deleted scene is Harvey literally being a clown. While the overall DVD content is pretty good, it only scratches the surface of who Harvey Milk is as it’s a pretty good DVD for people who enjoy the film.
***End of DVD Tidbits***
Milk is truly an inspiring, powerful, vibrant, and captivating film from Gus Van Sant featuring a superb performance from Sean Penn. Thanks to a great technical team, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and a brilliant supporting cast that includes James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and Alison Pill. It's a film that is mesmerizing to watch thanks to Gus Van Sant's direction and unique presentation to an important period in American history. For Gus Van Sant, this film represents another brilliant film in a collection of great films he's done as he's definitely become one of cinema's most revered directors. In Sean Penn, the film represents an actor at the top of his game while giving a performance that is amazing to watch. In the end, Milk is a film that is truly a masterpiece that is engaging in its message and story about one of the most important figures in American history.
Gus Van Sant Reviews: Mala Noche - Drugstore Cowboy - My Own Private Idaho - Even Cowgirls Get the Blues - To Die For - Good Will Hunting - Psycho (1998 film) - Finding Forrester - Gerry - Elephant - Last Days - Paranoid Park - Restless - Promised Land
(C) thevoid99 2011
I have seen this in quite some time but I remember liking it, especially Penn's performance. Honestly though, as good as Penn was, Mickey Rourke totally nailed it as Randy "Ram" Robinson and deserved to win the Oscar that year no matter what anybody says. Rourke is the man! Nice Review Steven!
I agree. I wanted Mickey Rourke to win that Oscar though I'm sure Sean Penn wanted Rourke to win as well.
I love Penn's performance and it's certainly my favorite since Fast Times at Ridgemont High but Rourke just truly delivered in The Wrestler and should've won. I also wished that Benicio del Toro got nominated for Che because that was a performance as well.
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