It's rare that an Oscar winner lives up to its hype, particularly when the film in question is a bio-pic, a genre not really known for its artistic merit or, oddly enough, attention to detail or historical accuracy. Gus Van Sant's 2008 two time Academy Award winning Milk (it took home Best Actor and Best Screenplay but was nominated for another six Oscars), however, is one of those exceptions that makes the rule - it's an excellent picture in every regard.
The film basically tells the story of the last few years of Harvey Milk's life. Milk, played perfectly by Penn, was the first openly gay elected politician in California and in 1972 at the age of forty he moves from New York City to San Francisco where he opens a camera shop that attracts a large gay clientele. Once he's settled in, his political leanings take flight and he starts organizing gay rights activists in the Castro District. Milk wisely figures out that he can do the gay community more good as a politician and so he runs for local office, his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco) helping him out as his campaign manager. Milk is smart enough to build some important relationships early on in his career and while it takes him a few years, in 1977 he wins a supervisory seat in San Francisco. Once he's in office, he makes it a point to do what he can to take down Anita Bryant's 'Save The Children' agenda, a blatant anti-gay effort. Closer to home back in San Francisco and with some help from intern Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), Milk has to contend with Dan White (Josh Brolin), who isn't happy that a gay man has the same kind of political clout that he does culminating in White's efforts to ban homosexuals from working in public schools throughout the state of California.
Because of its political leanings, Milk has come under some fire in certain circles, but really, anyone with half a brain should be able to put aside their differences and appreciate how well made this picture really is. Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black certainly deserve loads of credit for the picture's success but you can't watch the picture and not walk away completely moved by Sean Penn's deservedly Oscar winning performance. The man literally becomes Harvey Milk, making the archival footage that Van Sant deftly weaves into the material shot specifically for the film fit beautifully. Penn completely puts himself into the role and he plays the part to perfection. Of course, being surrounded by talented supporting actors doesn't hurt things either. James Franco is heart breaking in his role as Scott Smith while Josh Brolin manages to infuse in Dan White a serious sense of humanity, not vilifying him but portraying him as a very real person and making his role in the events all the more unsettling. As great as the supporting cast is, however, it's Penn who justly gets the spotlight here, bringing such warmth and depth to his portrayal of Milk that there are times where you won't even notice when the narrative film switches to archival footage and back again.
You'd think a movie like Milk would go the route of so many other films set in the same era and overload its soundtrack with all manner of pop songs from the period in which it takes place but Van Sant wisely lets his film rely less on moldy oldies and more on Danny Elfman's excellent original score. This works very well with the film's cinematography. While handheld camerawork can get annoying in action films, Van Sant uses it well here to put us in the middle of the demonstrations and placing the viewer in the heart of the political upheaval that was sweeping the San Francisco of the 1970s. Quieter and more contemplative moments are suitably more melancholy in structure, less frantic and more pensive in the way that the core characters are portrayed but the rally scenes really stand out and pull you right in to the moment of it all.
Say what you will about the film's politics - to each their own - but Milk succeeds in giving an important political figure his cinematic due and it nothing else it will get people thinking not about gay rights specifically but about equal rights in general. Penn's inspiring and touching performance (words that this reviewer will rarely use simply because it is so often untrue to say so) will stick with you and hopefully so will the movie's message of tolerance and understanding. What will also stick with you is how few steps have been taken in the three decades since the events that take place in this film have unfolded. Part dramatic character study, part documentary, Milk is a film that cuts right to the point. It moves at quick pace toward its inevitable conclusion but never at the cost of the humanity that gives the movie its warmth and at the same time also gives it its edge and its poignancy.
Universal presents Milk in a very good 1080p VC-1 encoded 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that fluctuates according to what source Van Sant is using at any given time, meaning that the documentary and archival footage spliced into the picture looks appropriately rough around the edges while the newly shot footage with Penn and the rest of the cast looks as good as you'd hope such a recent film would look. Keeping in mind the aesthetic that Van Sant was going for, what we've got is an intentionally grainy image but one that is very well authored and free of any compression artifacts or edge enhancement. Milk is kind of an odd film, in terms of its visuals, but once you get accustomed to how the picture is supposed to look, you'll likely be quite pleased with the job that Universal has done on this Blu-ray release.
Audio options are provided in English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio with optional subtitles available in English SDH, French and Spanish. The dialogue in Milk can sometimes be on the soft side so it is to Universal's credit that the audio is as clear as it is on this release. You won't find yourself straining to understand what's being said very often and while the audio isn't reference quality material, what we have here is a nice, clean sounding track that makes good use of the surround channels during a few key scenes with properly balanced levels and decent bass response.
The extras are fairly slim, given the film's recent critical acclaim, amounting to only three brief supplements starting with Remembering Harvey (13:21) which is an all too short bit in which those who knew the real life Harvey Milk sit in front of the camera and share some memories of him. Appearing here are Carol Ruth Silver, Anne Kronenberg, Cleve Jones, Alan Baird, and Danny Nicoletta all of whom either knew or worked with Milk in some regard and most of whom have parts in the feature film contained here. There are some interesting, touching stories told but again, it's too short to be of much substance.
Hollywood Comes To San Francisco (14:32) is an equally brief series of interviews with the cast and crew of the film, recorded as they're all working on location in San Francisco while the film was in production. A few of the actors express their appreciation for being able to meet with the people they were hired to play in the film and Dustin Lance Black talks about writing the picture and what he wanted to get across with his script. A more in-depth piece certainly would have been more than welcome. It is odd, however, that neither Sean Penn nor Gus Van Sant show up in this featurette - and why do none of the features have any footage of Harvey Milk in them? Weird.
Last but not least, Marching For Equality (7:58) is a quick look at the two major march/demonstration scenes that we see in the film and how they were shot as well as how they compare to what really happened in San Francisco. The three featurettes are presented in 1080i HD. Of course, menus and chapter selection are also included, and some additional content is available for web-enabled Blu-ray players via Blu-ray live.
While the disc is light on features, the transfer is (intentionally) all over the map and the audio won't wow you, Milk is such a good movie that it's still highly recommended. Penn's performance is just as good the hype would have you believe and the movie is an incredibly well made picture about one of history's true unsung heroes.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.