January 11, 2009

Harvey Milk Biographical Film Among the Best of 2008

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Milk is an unequivocal triumph, a film of tremendous emotional depth that reveals a man equally flawed as he is selfless, who not only fought for the rights of local San Francisco gays, but championed equality for all those oppressed across an entirely-too-intolerant nation.
That man, of course, is Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay rights activist and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk opens with grainy, black-and-white footage of police raiding gay bars and arresting patrons during the ’50s and ’60s, followed by Dianne Feinstein’s November 27, 1978 announcement to the press that Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) have been assassinated. Van Zant grounds the film with a significant amount of archival television footage, reminding you that it is, by-and-large, a traditional biopic. However, where Milk deviates from the conventional is in its story-telling, as Harvey throughout the film tells his story poignantly through the recording of his will only nine days prior to his assassination.
Milk has “Oscar” written all over it. Penn delivers a masterful performance, full of hope, humility, and honesty, but he does so without succumbing to Hollywood cliché. Never does the actor turn Milk into a saintly martyr (his personal and romantic struggles show him to be otherwise), but portrays him as someone cautiously willing to take on the leadership role he was so inadvertently thrown into, delivering to his team of supporters the political voice they so desperately yearned for.
But Penn isn’t all that makes this film so terrific. The supporting cast is equally absorbing, beginning with a refreshingly raw by James Franco as Scott Smith, who ends up being Harvey’s most steadfast and devoted companion. The chemistry between Penn and Franco draws many parallels to that shared by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, and not merely because they are both pairs of straight men playing homosexuals. The performances evoke strong emotions and the actors do a superb job of depicting this romance. Even as the stresses of Milk’s campaigns begin to strain their relationship, their admiration for each other is undyingly palpable.
Other noteworthy performances are delivered by veteran and emerging actors alike. Industry vets Josh Brolin — who plays one of Milk’s fellow city supervisors, and later assassin, Dan White — and Victor Garber, portraying the San Francisco Mayor and political ally of Milk, are convincing in their roles, the latter as confidently assured as the former is intensely resentful. Milk’s supporting political team is a cast of exuberant characters. The central one of these supporting characters is Cleve Jones, played by Emile Hirsch, whose performance is so terrifically genuine that it almost makes his terribly plastic turn as Speed Racer forgivable.
Van Zant’s expert direction is commendable as well. His technique is impeccable, and the intricate camera angles (the assassination scene is particularly innovative), seamlessly interweaved with real-life news footage, really drive this film’s messages of tolerance and acceptance home. The script by Dustin Lance Black builds with a wonderful sense of place and purpose, constructing Milk’s political ambitions from their humble Castro neighborhood origins, and expanding them outward until the film reaches its finale, where Milk faces an entire nation beleaguered by bigotry and backward thinking.
Admittedly, I have revealed very little about the specific challenges Milk faces in this film, and this I confess was intentional. The effectiveness of this film lies not in the events that occur, but in the manner that they unfold. Milk is far more than a loosely biographical piece; it’s a film that celebrates the human spirit, all through the joy, sadness, cruelty and controversy that characterized our protagonist’s lifetime. To begin every one of his speeches, Harvey Milk would introduce himself with the words “I wanna recruit you.” Well, Van Zant and company have recruited me as a huge supporter of this motion picture, as Milk is an inspiring film worth every minute.