Movie Review: Milk

On November 4, while the nation watched the culmination of the 2008 Presidential Election, a smaller battle took place in California voting booths—the vote on Proposition 8. By a slim margin, the passing of this seminal ballot proposal effectively eliminated the right for same-sex couples to marry in one of the nation’s most Democratic states. Already, the nation has seen a harsh backlash to Prop 8; protests have occurred coast-to-coast and lawsuits have been filed. It’s amidst this current day struggle for human rights that famed director Guy Van Sant reminds the nation of gay rights activist Harvey Milk in his political drama, “Milk.” In the 1970s, San Francisco became a safe haven for hundreds of members of the GLBT community. While people from around the nation flocked to San Francisco for acceptance, businessman Harvey Milk was elected the first openly gay politician to a public office in the country. As states began banning gays and lesbians from working in public schools, Milk stepped onto the national stage by opposing a prominent proposition widely known as the “Briggs Initiative.” Charismatic and outgoing, Milk was a hero for thousands of people and continued to rally the GLBT community until November 27, 1978, the day of his assassination. Van Sant’s “Milk” follows a brief segment in Harvey Milk’s life from 1971 to 1978. For decades, people have struggled to bring Milk’s story to the silver screen; after all, telling Harvey’s larger-than-life story takes talent, money and social acceptance—a combination that’s hard to come by. However, Focus Features has hit potential Oscar gold with “Milk,” a stunning tour-de-force of a movie. In one of the best casting decisions in recent history, Oscar winner Sean Penn completely embodies Harvey Milk. Mastering his trademark ear-to-ear grin and over-the-top mannerisms, Penn reaffirms his versatility as one of Hollywood’s biggest talents. “Milk” is a far leap from his previous award-winning work in “Mystic River,” but Penn recreates Harvey’s heartwarming persona with such spirit that it’s hard to imagine him playing any different role. He is joined on screen by quite a few big names; Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin and Victor Garber all star alongside Penn. In a movie that features so much good talent, it’s not a surprise that the acting is universally terrific. Franco departs from his usual action-comedy roles to take on the part of Scott Smith, Milk’s longtime lover and business partner. Brolin, a year after his breakout role in “No Country for Old Men,” plays the uptight city supervisor Dan White. Almost all of the actors take on roles that differ drastically from their previous work. It’s a leap of creative faith that ultimately pays off for everyone. Not a single actor delivers something less than remarkable, and that fact in and of itself is pretty amazing. Van Sant certainly had a lot of talent work with. With so many outstanding performances on screen at the same time, it’s easy to forget the brains behind the whole operation. Besides assembling a great cast, Van Sant has created a movie that is visually awesome. Blending together print, stock news footage and present-day film, “Milk” is the definition of multi-media. Van Sant brings 1970’s San Francisco to life through his ambitious decision to include old newspaper articles and television reports throughout the story. None of these elements stick out or feel clumsily included; rather, they are perfectly placed throughout the movie, helping to tell Harvey’s somewhat long and complicated story. After dropping off into relative obscurity following his 1997 hit, “Good Will Hunting,” Van Sant is back in full force with “Milk.” As a romance, a biography and a drama with comedic elements, “Milk” ambitiously recreates the life and times of Harvey Milk. As a stand-alone movie, “Milk” is simply stunning. But, set alongside the news of Proposition 8 in California, “Milk” takes on new significance. Thirty years ago, Harvey Milk started an upward battle for the GLBT community. “Milk” reminds us that, in the fight for human rights, there is still work to be done. Grade: 6