Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Review: Milk

Dir. Gus Van Sant
Year: 2008
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 128mins

As someone who likes to watch movies that have been deemed "worthy" enough by critics and Academy members alike, I tend to find myself sitting down to watch biopics quite frequently. I don't necessarily find anything wrong with the genre - who am I to say how important one life is to those of another - but as the desire to immortalise lives on film keeps on keeping on I do tend to scratch my head and wonder what lead to certain biopics being made. Oh sure, Edith Piaf sure did live a fascinating life, but when it is turned into such a haphazard and sloppy movie as La Vie en Rose it's hard to wonder why they bothered. And similarly, it's quite obvious that the makers behind a movie such as Walk the Line knew their subject matter (Johnny Cash) wasn't exactly changing anybody's life for the better so they gussied it up to make it look and sound as gorgeous as could be, but never erased the sense that everybody's time could be better spent.

And this brings me to Gus Van Sant's Milk, a biopic of the first openly gay man to be elected to American office. Thankfully, Van Sant's film is like a perfect storm of sorts. It not only looks, sounds, pulsates and feels like a passionately made and executed movie, but it's also putting the spotlight on a human being who truly deserves to be "immortalised" on film. Harvey Milk was a man whose life deserved to be told, deemed so not by the number of records he sold or the number of life-threatening incidents he survived, but by merely living a life that changed history, forged a revolution and made a difference.

Thankfully starting in 1978 - bypassing any unnecessary child, teen and young adult phases of Harvey's life, which reminds us that not everybody's life was very interesting even if they think it was - Sean Penn plays the nigh-on-40-year-old Harvey Milk as he sets off on a lifestyle change from New York City to San Francisco with his new boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco). A desperate desire to change the homophobic trappings of his life leads Harvey to forge a career in politics. It's not until 1977 that he finally wins office, but at this point his life has taken many turns. Some for better and some for worse. He eventually brings about the ire of another elected official, Dan White (Josh Brolin), which in 1978 brought his life to an end.

Gus Van Sant has returned from the arthouse wildernerness of movies such as Elephant, Gerry and 2008's Paranoid Park with this movie. One could complain that the film is too straight forward and presents his life as one event after the other. I would argue that Harvey's life doesn't warrant ridiculous time shift editing or flights of fancy to get its message across. Van Sant has chosen Harris Savides as his cinematographer and he continues to be one of the finest in the business. Following on from his similarly striking 1970s work on David Fincher's Zodiac, his feel for the time period is excellent and helps the film's graceful look. Danny Glicker's costume design, too, is wonderful with great touches of detail and the art direction by Bill Groom feels lived in and real.

The film is, perhaps more than anything, an acting showcase. Stepping aside of Sean Penn's work here to focus on the supporting players, there are an embarrassment of riches. Emile Hirsch as a campaigner for Harvey finally shows some screen presence after roles in films like Into the Wild and Speed Racer failed to ignite. James Franco's top 2008 continues as Harvey's lover, showing humour, warmth and tenderness. Josh Brolin is also great as Milk's downfall, Dan White. You can see the uneasiness within his body movements that help make White less of a moustache-twirling villain (even though, in retrospect, that's all he deserved.) The whole cast, really, right on through to Alison Pill, Victor Garber and Joseph Cross are fine.

However, it really is Sean Penn that steals the show. In a performance unlike anything we've seen from him in a very long time. He is funny and charming and it's all so unlike him. A coda at the end of the film shows just how much Penn looked like Milk, too. Gone is the temperamental rogue handsome man that we have come to expect from him these days. I know Penn is an actor so I'm not going to claim such idiotic things as "Sean Penn is Harvey Milk", but he does a hell of a lot to convince us that he could be.

Ultimately though Milk stands as a testament to Harvey's life and an affirmation that what he did and what he sacrificed was not in vein. Recent events may have put a halt - or even reversed in some situations - the strides that the LGBT community has made since Milk's assassination at the hands of a jealous and frightened man, but what Harvey did was important and far worthier of praise than one of the many many musicians who had a hard childhood, became famous and then abused drugs until they died in some sort of tragic way. His life deserves to be seen by those who weren't around, and you deserve to watch it. You deserve to experience it and deserve to learn from it. A-


adam k. said...

I agree with everything you said. I just remember thinking over and over while watching: "Wow, I'm glad they made this. And they did it so well."

I'm tempted to call this an "A" film simply because I can't for the life of me see any real flaws. Not a single "dud" performance or scene anywhere. It took a little while to get going, but then, so did Milk's life. And there were enough cool and innovative techniques going on - like how they integrated the documentary footage - that I was always engaged and impressed by what I was seeing. It really resonated when I saw it in a way not much else has this year. Granted, I haven't seen too much.

I just think this is a textbook example of how to do a great and worthwhile biopic. Greatness can indeed be found in any genre. Even the overrated ones.

And I LOVED Allison Pill! I love that she was actually not as pretty as the real woman she played, she just had lots of actorly character about her. Come to think of it, the real Milk was sorta prettier than Penn too. What a change of pace. The only actor who I recall being head-and-shoulders more attractive than the real guy was, of, course, James Franco.

crossoverman said...

I think one of the major problems with biopics is not picking the right starting point - and Milk picked it perfectly.

I also like the fact the film gives Dan White some humanity and makes it clear that his motivation isn't easily categorized - was he a closeted gay man or did he really just hate gay men or was the fact he lost his job the primary motivating factor? It could be a mix of all three, of course. But he's not presented so much as a villain - at least not like the christian singer who was running around the country demonising gay people.

Sean Penn was incredible, to the point where I forgot it was him.

Dame James Henry said...

Excellent review! Although I'm not quite as enthusiastic as you were about Milk on the whole- I think it occasionally gets too bogged down by the conventions of the biopic subgenre- I thought it was quite an excellent film. You're exactly right about the need for more biopics that have some sort of "message" to take away from rather than "Wow, so-and-so was such an interesting and misunderstood singer/actor/painter/artist."

Adam: Not a single dud performance? I agree with one major exception: Diego Luna. What the hell was he doing? Completely on a different planet than the rest of the cast.

Kamikaze Camel said...

Yeah, Diego Luna... that was... strange. I'm not exactly sure what I was watching sometimes when he was on screen. Although, I know there are a few who read this blog - James included, High School Musical fans should know I thought Lucas Grabeel was adorable.

I did think the only major flaw with the movie was the screenplay, but to call it a "major flaw" isn't right. It's actually quite good, just not at such a super level as the rest of the production. But, as I said, I don't think Milk NEEDED any completely wild and extravagant screenplay devices to make its point.

And, yeah, crossover I'm glad they didn't show us Harvey's childhood. Good god that would've been horrible. Did he play doctors and nurses with a neighbourhood boy, which sparked his curiosity? lol.

Greg Heinrich said...

Maybe I am a wuss, but I actually cried at the end - the candlelight march. Awesome and uplifting film - unlike the entirely negative (albeit very well made) "Revolutionary Road" which I saw the following night (and wished I hadn't).

Glenn said...

I cried in The Times of Harvey Milk (the Oscar winning doco from 1984), but not this although I did get choked up.

par3182 said...

what a great review, although i'm afraid i didn't love the film. i found it a little dry and, surprisingly considering the subject, lacking in passion

i'm rarely of the opinion that a film should be longer, but i felt the supporting characters were underdeveloped

as for diego luna, i think capturing the character of the irritating clingy boyfriend that your friends don't like is a cinematic first

richardwatts said...

To be fair to Diego Luna, I think he does a good job with an underwritten role. Dustin Lance Black's screenplay was informed by a series of interviews with Milk's close friends, none of whom seemed to like Jack Lira; and I would posit that their antipathy is the reason for the character being shown in such a simplistic, two-dimensional light...