Saturday, October 10, 2015

Milk (2008)

Director: Gus Van Sant                                   Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Film Score: Danny Elfman                              Cinematography: Harris Savides
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco and Alison Pill

Say what you want about Sean Penn--and there’s a lot to say that isn’t good--but his passion for the essential dignity and rights of all humanity should be an inspiration to everyone. And it should make right-wing fascists like Jon Voight and James Caan ashamed for the way that their party attempts to disenfranchise huge swaths of our population in a transparently vainglorious desire to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of anyone in their path. But this war on humanity started long before the twenty-first century, and just one of those episodes is examined in Milk. The film tells the story of the country’s first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was murdered, along with Mayor George Moscone, by fellow supervisor Dan White. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two, the first a well-deserved Oscar for Sean Penn in the starring role, the second for the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black. The origins of the film began with an attempt by Oliver Stone to produce his own screenplay of Milk’s story. He initially brought in Gus Van Sant to direct, but Van Sant left the project citing creative differences and sought out a new screenplay in order to make his own film, that at one point had Matt Damon playing Dan White. Though the studio sought to avoid controversy, the juvenile state of our country on issues like this was once again highlighted upon release. Still, the film made a substantial profit and was nominated for best picture and best director Oscars.

The film begins in a New York train station with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, attempting to pick up the much younger James Franco. Against his better judgment, Franco goes with Penn and the two of them eventually wind up in San Francisco as the city emerges from the hippy era, still a magnet for those who live alternative lifestyles. After renting an apartment in the Castro district, Penn decides to open up a camera shop and is immediately informed by the local business owners that they’ll be run out of town if they cater to homosexuals. But Penn has no intention of letting this happen, and begins to harness the economic power of the gays in the area to boycott those businesses that won’t serve homosexuals and succeeds in running them out of business. Charged with this success, he decides that he’ll run for the board of supervisors for the area that includes the Castro. At first it’s more of an exercise than a serious bid for power. But with each successive year, as his numbers begin to climb, he becomes increasingly determined to get true representation for the gays in the community. In fact, his focus on the elections becomes so intense that it drives away Franco. For the next election Penn shaves his beard, puts on a suit, and because the districts have been redrawn so that those running don’t have to represent the Castro, he is finally elected. And while initially focused on local affairs, the national anti-gay politics of those like Anita Bryant and John Briggs propel him into a larger arena in which the stakes affect the gay population of the entire country.

The story is essentially told as a lengthy flashback while Penn narrates into a tape recorder his fears about a possible assassination, fears that would tragically come true. Sean Penn does an incredible job of inhabiting the character of Harvey Milk, and his portrayal is at once impressive and heartbreaking. The film doesn’t flinch from the gay lifestyle, and what have since become gay stereotypes, but neither does it wallow in them. In fact, Director Gus Van Sant seems more at home in this milieu than he does with more fictional stories, as demonstrated by his work on another true story, Promised Land, in which he was reunited with Good Will Hunting star Matt Damon. The first thing one notices is that the film is able to replicate the look of the seventies more accurately than any previous film, mixing in documentary footage with the kind of confidence that dares the audience to find fault with the art direction and costume design. And Van Sant’s directorial touches are perfectly subtle, allowing the story to be the star rather than the direction. A brilliant cast does the rest. James Franco is terrific as the boyfriend who ends the relationship with resignation rather than drama and cliché. Josh Brolin is equally good as the assassin, Dan White, the tightly-wound supervisor whose rigid views Penn believes are a cover for his own homosexual leanings, like something out of American Beauty. Assisting Penn in his political errands are Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill who are solid in their support, as well as Victor Garber as Mayor Moscone and Denis O’Hare as John Briggs. Milk is a powerful film as well as a sad reminder of just how far this country still has to go in granting all of its citizens the equal rights they justifiably deserve.

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