How glorious it is when, during the height of Oscar bait season, a film like “Milk” comes along and sets a standard for modern filmmaking. Sure – it’s a biopic – which is one of the quintessential Oscar bait films, but luckily for film audiences this is one that isn’t trying to win awards but instead is that rare film that achieves something more than the traditional picture. “Milk” is unequivocally moving, and has a message stronger than any film in this century. As a film critic and as a human being I was proud to see this film and am privileged to write about it.
Even shots fired from a truly disturbed man could not break the spirit, and the vitality of the man that was Harvey Milk. Portrayed in what is easily his best performance, Sean Penn becomes Milk in Gus Van Sant’s best film to date. The film’s story is of Milk’s rise to fame in San Francisco as the first openly gay elected official. Against a prejudice nation of bigots, Milk fought hard to become a city supervisor and to bring rights to not only the gay community, but to every minority. That’s the magic of this film, in that it’s not just an inspirational film for gay and lesbian audiences. This could be about the injustices against any group that has felt the brick wall of the majority against human rights.
“Milk” is a consummate film, and most certainly the most important film of the year. From the exceptional soundtrack (it’s refreshing to hear a Danny Elfman score that doesn’t sound like every other Danny Elfman score), to first time screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s mixture of drama and humor, to Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides’ work with camera and their often inspired styles of shooting style, to the unmistakably best casting in any film this year.
The supporting cast is excellent, if not just as well cast as Penn as Milk. Josh Brolin plays Dan White, Milk’s co-worker/future murderer – a tragic character. White is a layered man, with secrets deeper than are revealed in the film. What isn’t portrayed through dialogue or extensive description, Brolin brings the heartbreak to a character who could have just seemed a crazed ass in the hands of another actor. Brolin uses a wide range of emotions, and shows extraordinary range. Also impressive is James Franco as Milk’s lover Scott Smith, showing a rare soft side and likeability as does the very talented Emile Hirsch as Milk’s young advisor Cleve Jones.
But the real reason this film will move you is Sean Penn. “Milk” does the impossible. It makes Sean Penn not likable, but lovable. Previous roles from Penn have been a little too difficult to swallow. Penn’s performances can often feel self-indulgent and a bit frustrating (like his Oscar-winning turn in “Mystic River” which was severely overrated in comparison to his much more deserving opponent Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation”). But the character of Harvey Milk brings out the soft, real side of Sean Penn. This is a restored, genuine Sean Penn. He rarely overplays the character, giving Milk a subtle beauty in every scene. In one particular scene, a drunk Dan White approaches Harvey and in his stupor he tries to understand the gay “issues.” Harvey tells him it’s not just an issue – “it’s our lives we’re fighting for.” That one scene will stay with you long after you leave the theater. It’s easily one of the better performances on screen this year.
It’s a real joy to see a message film of this proportion on the screen. “Milk” imparts that the simple, albeit often unfathomable lesson that one person can make a huge difference. Milk’s mark is still seen to this day, as the strides made in human rights for all have been remarkable tremendous. The rejection of Proposition 8 in California’s election last November reminds us that we still have a long way to go. A film like “Milk” has the power to make the ignorant enlightened; the naïve aware. No matter your position on the issues, there is no way this film should be missed. It’s independent filmmaking on a grand yet accessible way, and everyone should see “Milk.”