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Crying Over Slain Milk

Milk (2008)

Phil Bray/Focus Features

The story of Harvey Milk has never seemed timelier than it does right now, with this month’s defeat of Proposition 8 in California and the ongoing war over equal rights for the American gay population. That particular bit of happenstance amplifies the considerable dramatic impact of Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” which chronicles the activist period in its subject’s life. Brilliantly acted and laced with verisimilitude, the movie convincingly delves into the front lines of that war in its earliest stages.

It begins with Harvey’s (Sean Penn) fateful move from New York City to San Francisco, where he and boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco) open a camera store in the city’s Castro neighborhood in the early 1970s. The obvious parallels to another overwhelmingly popular political figure stand out: Harvey works to turn the gay community into a coherent, energized body (he’s – guess what – a community organizer) and quickly pinpoints elected office as the best outlet with which to do so. In his depiction of the milieu, Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay incorporates two key, interwoven dramatic conflicts. The first pits Harvey and his movement against their political antagonists, the second – more intensely personal and ultimately tragic – is that which erupts between him and fellow San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).

The movie works in no small part because the filmmaker forgoes his characteristically dreamy, emotive style. Mr. Van Sant has always been adept at capturing teenage loneliness and alienation, but he understands that this particular narrative requires something other than a delicate, reflective approach. Some tropes remain: He shoots a few moments in slow motion, bestows metaphoric weight on an opera and includes at least one significant lengthy tracking shot. But he has otherwise tempered his inclination towards experimentalism. Instead, in his collaboration with director of photography Harris Savides, he turns his eye towards the period detail, enhancing it with some expertly incorporated historical footage and successfully evokes the rather joyful spirit with which Milk led his life.

Perhaps the smartest decision Mr. Van Sant makes is simply to let his actors act, unencumbered by stylistic intrusions. He has assembled a remarkable ensemble (also including Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill), with everyone from the headliners to the smallest bit player completely tuned in to the material. The star in particular stands out. Perhaps the premier actor of his generation, Mr. Penn has always achieved a certain studious excellence in his work, but he’s never done anything quite like this. He gives such a charismatic performance that one completely believes in Harvey’s potential to galvanize a wide swath of the population. He’s fun loving and sympathetic, but also astute, serious and able to work himself into a perfectly pitched frenzy. There may not be a more taxing acting challenge than being asked to turn a historical figure into a tangible, fully-formed individual – to evoke the legend and the man behind him. Mr. Penn does so exquisitely. In the process he turns Mr. Van Sant’s tribute to Milk and his unfinished work into a powerful human drama.


Opens on Nov. 26 in New York and on Jan. 16, 2009 in Britain.

Directed by Gus Van Sant; written by Dustin Lance Black; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by Elliot Graham; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Bill Groom; produced by Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen; released by Focus Features. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), Josh Brolin (Dan White), Diego Luna (Jack Lira), Alison Pill (Anne Kronenberg), Victor Garber (Mayor George Moscone), Lucas Grabeel (Danny Nicoletta) and James Franco (Scott Smith).


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