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Gus Van Sant's Milk made a solid showing at this year's Academy Awards. It was nominated for eight and won two, but the two were important: Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black) and Best Actor (Sean Penn). Penn's acceptance speech, an impassioned plea in the name of gay rights, was one of the highlights of the awards ceremony.
The movie isn't a gay-themed drama but rather a political bio about a remarkable New Yorker who moved to San Francisco in the 1970s, became politically active and was eventually elected to the office of City Supervisor. It's practically a Frank Capra movie in its endorsement of American values. Beginning as a grassroots neighborhood mover & shaker, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) quickly masters the art of politics, American style.
Frank Capra probably wouldn't have understood Milk's lifestyle, which he shared with hundreds of thousands of SF gays. In the early 70s the police could still arbitrarily raid gay bars, arresting men for loitering (existing) and administering punitive beatings. As shown in the movie, Milk must persuade his fellows that political activism is a realistic path to social change. He doesn't so much make a stand against injustice as simply organize people to take control of their neighborhoods. Challenged by bigoted merchants when he opens a camera store, Milk soon shows them that he can rally the neighborhood to vote with their pocketbooks. As an unofficial "mayor" of the district, Milk's influence brings him in conflict with the acknowledged local gay community leader -- a wealthy publisher who doesn't believe in stirring up trouble. On the other hand, Harvey is such a reliable and honest deal maker that even the Teamsters cooperate with him. Harvey helps the Teamsters organize Coors by rallying his constituents to boycott their beer. In exchange, the Teamsters allow gays to join their union. That's how politics are conducted in the real world, and Milk excels at it.
The movie characterizes Harvey Milk as a highly social, playful man. He picks up a longtime partner in the New York subway, and even after breaking up they remain friends. Harvey's next partner is an emotionally unstable, high-maintenance boyfriend that can't take it when Harvey's politics take up more of his time. Harvey Milk's social instincts are inseparable from his political aims; when he meets young drifter Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), we can't tell if he's picking him up, counseling him on his risky lifestyle or enlisting him in a social crusade.
Harvey Milk must make repeated runs at public office before he's elected. He establishes himself an amiable personality, whether calling to his neighbors from a soapbox or speaking before audiences hostile to gays in general. A sense of humor is a big asset. His strongest foes are bigots who use the gay issue to position themselves as saviors of traditional values. Anita Bryant is an unseen but strongly felt presence; her hateful campaign makes gay rights a religious issue. Harvey must also oppose a state senator (Denis O'Hare) who rallies support by spreading the notion that gays are perverts preying upon children.
Milk comes off as a very good civics lesson. Harvey's camera store is a gathering place for his colleagues and supporters, almost like the country store of old but minus the cracker barrel. Harvey doesn't behave like a revolutionary or use shock tactics to gain attention. He cuts his hair and changes to wearing business suits to make himself more acceptable to the straight establishment. His manner is friendly and sincere. People like him and trust him.
Eventually the movie gets around to Milk's election and his relationship with San Francisco's Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) and fellow City Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a staunch anti-gay candidate who feels cheated and threatened by Milk's popularity and political skills. White tries various methods of co-opting and undermining Harvey. None succeed, and we know that something is emotionally wrong with the man when he begins to seriously blame Milk for his own bad judgment. This part of the story plays out in the actual location at City Hall, and as we realize that the assassination is imminent the movie sinks into a tragic groove. Most of us didn't know much about Harvey Milk beyond the facts of his death. Gus Van Sant presents him as yet another 20th century progressive gunned down by American Madness.
Gus Van Sant's approach to Milk is quite different from his other films. Milk is presented as a real person with quirks and flaws. Individual scenes are loosely played but the film maintains the structure necessary to tell an episodic story about historic events. The camerawork is excellent and the San Francisco locations authentic.
"My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!" More than half the credit for Milk belongs to Sean Penn, who seems to have transformed himself into another human being to play the role. Penn convinces as the kind of guy who knows himself well and has a better-than-good handle on most of the people he meets. Harvey laughs off a constant stream of death threats -- sometimes illustrated -- with the attitude that they prove that he's moving in the right direction. Milk's a hero, and fearless in his own way. When a bigoted neighbor lectures him on "Man's Law and God's Law", Milk doesn't even flinch. Penn makes this entirely believable.
Emile Hirsh, who starred for Sean Penn in the admirable drama Into the Wild, is one of many actors playing associates and colleagues of Milk, with the originals often taking smaller parts a couple of paces in the background. Alison Pill plays Anne Kronenberg, an activist who finds herself working as Milk's campaign manager, surrounded by guys. Other key parts are covered by Diego Luna and James Franco. Josh Brolin once again excels in an eccentric role. His Dan White always seems to be sweating under pressure, as if he's been dispatched to work by an angry wife and knows that he's not going to be able to please her. The way Brolin plays it, it's suggested that White had confused sexual issues of his own. He comes off as a villain but also a tragic case, a volatile personality too near the breaking point. Milk has a sense of balance not typical of biographies of any stripe. It's also an important social document that honors the American tradition of political activism. It's a civics lesson, without the preaching.
Universal's Blu-ray of Focus Features' Milk is the expected high quality HD transfer of one of last year's most celebrated pictures. Audio and video are up to the best standards.
Universal's extras are three substantial featurettes that use excerpts from the film, but only a few graphic images and newsreel clips. Remembering Harvey is a mosaic of interview bites from the men and women who lived and worked with the man. Hollywood Comes to San Francisco and Marching for Equality talk about the film's locations and the big crowd scenes that used thousands of volunteers, but really just continue the dialogue among Harvey's associates. Here's where we thought we'd be seeing more comparisons between the movie's recreations and the original events, perhaps shown in TV news film, but apparently the extras weren't budgeted for such luxuries.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Milk Blu-ray rates:
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