Milk (2008)

Milk (2008)
  • Time: 128 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: Gus Van Sant
  • Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin


Using flashbacks from a statement recorded late in life and archival footage for atmosphere, this film traces Harvey Milk’s career from his 40th birthday to his death. He leaves the closet and New York, opens a camera shop that becomes the salon for San Francisco’s growing gay community, and organizes gays’ purchasing power to build political alliances. He runs for office with lover Scott Smith as his campaign manager. Victory finally comes on the same day Dan White wins in the city’s conservative district. The rest of the film sketches Milk’s relationship with White and the 1978 fight against a statewide initiative to bar gays and their supporters from public school jobs.


  • I hadn’t seen this film in at least two years and I forgot just how much it moves me. Gus Van Sant performs a miracle here and brings so much life and originality to a genre that is anything but lively. The biopic has become this stuffy, dull exercise of getting great actors and locking them into a boring, mundane structure where we just watch a history lesson basically and then they get lauded with awards for it. Which is whatever because some of the performances deserve them, but the films themselves are just so tired and weak and you know exactly what you’re getting into. Van Sant though creates something that I don’t think we had ever seen before and the film in a lot of ways is the perfect representation of the man himself.

    It is charming, comedic, uplifting and at times heartbreaking, but it always, always filled with two things; heart and hope. Those two things drive this film and I’m amazed still at how well Van Sant and Sean Penn manage to achieve them here. Penn was always an actor I’d admired for his brooding, emotional portrayals of broken men, but here he breaks his own mold and does something that I absolutely never thought he was capable of. He’s unrecognizable, digging so deep into this character that I totally forget it’s even him. I love his work in Mystic River, but this blows everything else he’s done out of the water as far as I’m concerned.

    I also think that I really used to underrate Josh Brolin’s performance here. When I first saw the film I thought the character was very under-written and while he was good, I thought he was the weak link in the supporting cast and that his Oscar nomination for it was just a sort of “great couple of years” nomination after he blew up in 2007. This time around though I was incredibly moved by his portrayal, turning what could have been the real villain of the piece into a complex and flawed person. It could have been very straight-forward, but Brolin added a world of depth to him and made this guy a human being.

    I don’t think he ever tries to justify Dan White’s actions, but there’s a huge difference between justification and understanding and I think Brolin does a tremendous job of getting the audience to understand Dan White and understand how someone could get to a place where he commits such a heinous, unforgivable action. Brolin’s portrayal is one of great anguish and while I still think the character is under-written, the actor is able to get us into understand this guy who is humiliated and pushed in a corner of self-hate and shame. It’s really moving stuff.

    I really hate when people call films a “triumph of the human spirit”, but this is the one film where I think I might actually apply that silly phrase. It’s really the only time where after a film finishes I’ve wanted to get out and make a stand. Because that’s what Van Sant is able to achieve here; he doesn’t let you be a spectator anymore, he makes you a part of this movement. Through the incredibly unique and marvelous technical qualities of the film, from the cinematography to the score, Van Sant strips away the sentimental melodrama that usually accompanies this kind of thing and just puts you right in the movement.

    The big speeches are awkward (intentionally and brilliantly) and rushed and they are shot from within the crowd, not as these huge moments of technical glory with a booming score to bring the tears out. The score is utilized in the day-to-day scenes to push you through to the emotional moments that still manage to bring a tear to my eye. Penn and Van Sant do something incredible here and I think this is a real achievement in every way. The only film of the 2008 Best Picture nominees that I think deserved to be there and one of the absolute best of the year.

  • Who would watch a two hour-plus biographical account of a homosexual politician? Ask Gus Van Sant and he would probably say very few. Ask everyone else, and they would probably reply “If Sean Penn is in the movie, I’d better catch it.”

    They better do because Penn is phenomenal in the role as Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay politician to be elected and then brutally assassinated while serving his term in office.

    The rise of Harvey Milk from a nobody to one of the most fascinating personalities to light up 1970s American political history is documented with incredible detail. Penn is joined with a stellar supporting cast which includes James Franco (Pineapple Express, 2008) and Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien, 2001), who portray as gay associates of Harvey Milk.

    Van Sant does not shy away from showing numerous scenes of homoerotic content. There are eye-opening smooching scenes amongst the male members of the cast (many involving Penn’s character) and these are quite tastefully done. Moreover, there are sex scenes but they are non-graphic and are often filmed in shadowy and dim surroundings.

    In fact, Milk is the most accessible mainstream gay picture to hit the screens since Lee Ang’s breakthrough award-winning hit, Brokeback Mountain (2005). Its documentary-drama style approach means that Milk can be enjoyed at the most basic level of intellectual entertainment or to a deeper extent, as an immersive educative experience.

    Van Sant, as always the creative oddball in modern indie American cinema, has injected his film with occasional stamps of unconventional filmmaking techniques. One scene shows a man speaking on the phone; it slowly turns into a platter of numerous smaller frames of other people answering their phone calls.

    With this, Van Sant has efficiently conveyed the message of ‘all-round effective communication’ to viewers in just a matter of seconds. In addition, Van Sant has opted to shoot some of the scenes of California in raw and grainy images, providing a realistic glimpse of street-life that dates back to thirty years.

    Milk has been nominated for Best Picture and Director for this year’s Academy Awards; though if the biopic were to win an Oscar, it would probably be Penn’s award than anyone else. Josh Brolin has a supporting actor nomination here as political rival, Dan White, but his performance shows otherwise and it will be a joke if he wins.

    Milk may be one of the year’s more curious offerings, but it lacks the overall substance and energy that Oliver Stone politically-themed films have in abundance. However, it is still quite a favorable return to mainstream cinema for Van Sant since Good Will Hunting (1997).

    GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)
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