Harvey biography a gripping masterpiece

Scott Viau

Film: Milk

Director: Gus Van Sant

Producers: Bruce Cohen,

Dan Jinks, Michael London

Writer: Dustin Lance Black

Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin

Runtime: 128 minutes

Rating: R

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A biography is never easy to make. Not only must the film’s subject matter be interesting enough to keep audiences in theaters, but the director must also ensure the person being profiled is important enough to merit an entire film based around them. Fortunately, Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” manages to do both effectively.

It’s the early 1970s, and Harvey Milk (Penn) is about to turn 40 and feels he hasn’t accomplished anything in his life. Tired of living in fear and in the closet he decides to leave New York for San Francisco with his boyfriend, Scott Smith (Franco). While Milk does find San Francisco to have a higher population of gays than other places, he still encounters discrimination from the various establishments in his Castro street neighborhood. Using his newly-opened camera shop as a safe haven for local gays, he decides it’s time that the voices of homosexuals everywhere be heard and runs for office. Once elected to office, Milk finds a foe in fellow Board of Supervisors member Dan White (Brolin).

Sean Penn delivers a remarkable performance as Milk, yet there’s something off about it. Anyone who’s seen “I Am Sam” will realize that Penn seems to mix a bit of mental retardation into his portrayal of a gay man. Perhaps this was the way Milk actually acted, but even so, Penn should have toned it down a bit. It doesn’t permeate the film, but it’s sure to leave an unintentional smile on everyone’s face. Franco’s performance is quiet and dignified. He has risen above his pretty boy-stoner status and has emerged as a serious actor. Franco counterbalances Penn’s performance wonderfully. For every over-the-top moment Penn has, Franco is there to be the stable one. Josh Brolin once again proves himself to be an incredibly versatile actor. He continues to surprise us with his range and talent in every film he’s in. His recent Oscar nomination is well deserved.

“Milk” is a prime example of the talent Gus Van Sant has. While some may argue over his lesser works, like “Elephant” or his remake of “Psycho,” the fact that he’s a courageous filmmaker that knows how to tell a story cannot be denied. Opening the film with archival footage of gays being harassed by the police, we see that the struggle for gay rights is a fight that has been going for decades. Unfortunately, what Van Sant can’t do is direct his minor actors very well. It feels as if his directorial advice to everyone is “Now remember, you’re gay, so act like it.” In a film that’s supposed to show that gays are worthy of their civil rights, downgrading the performances to stereotypes is probably not the best way to do it.

While most bio pics start at the beginning of a person’s life and work their way forward, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black starts eight years before Milk’s assassination, which is not only smart, but completely needed. Had this film started at the beginning it would have been completely bogged down and mostly irrelevant. While the screenplay isn’t the tightest script ever, it’s relatively to the point. The pacing of the film, though, is a bit off. For being just over two hours, the film feels a bit longer. Although it would lengthen the film, a better introduction to Milk’s boyfriends would’ve been appreciated. From the way it’s written, Milk appears to sleep with someone first and then date him, which only perpetuates the stereotype that gays are promiscuous.

What “Milk” does best, though, is show that the closeted, apathetic or ignorant need to come out and show their colors, so to speak. “Milk” proves that the fight for civil rights for gays is not an issue that speaks to homosexuals only. It’s an issue of human rights, rights that should be given to anyone regardless of what makes them different. With the recent passing of Proposition 8, the relevancy of this film is more important than ever.