Saturday, November 29, 2008

Milk (****)

Directed by Gus Van Sant


The passing of Prop. 8 in California. The loss of Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars to the trivial Crash. All symbols that even in today's seemingly advanced society, there is still severe prejudice against the homosexual community. More than any other movement that has fought for human rights, the homosexuals are the ones that strike the most fear, because their is no skin color for gay. That fear has produced some of the most bigotry this country has ever seen, and it still resides in our country today. Yes, there have been many broken barriers over the last couple of decades, but in Gus Van Sant's new film Milk, he gives a look at the beginning, when there was the most need for a fight.

Van Sant tells the story of Harvey Milk (played brilliantly by Sean Penn), a gay activist in the 1970's who was elected city supervisor of San Francisco, becoming the first openly gay man ever elected to political office. Living forty years in the closet, Harvey's world is changed when he and his boyfriend Scott (James Franco) move to San Francisco, where homosexuals feel the most free to express their culture. They open a camera store, which is less of a store, and more of a gay congregation where many can come to visit and not feel ashamed of their orientation. Their place becomes the beacon of the homosexual community.

Not everyone is pleased with Harvey and Scott's new standing in the city. Angry religious figures, with the violent support of the police, begin taking the business of brutalizing gays into their own hands. Upset with the blind bigotry, Harvey decides to run for city supervisor. No one should have to live with hatred and dismissal of other cultures, Harvey feels. He runs on the campaign that all men are created equal, no matter what their sexual persuasion may be. He loses three straight years, and his new found political obsession drives a wedge between he and Scott (James Franco), but his forth time is a charm, and now Harvey has worked his way into the machine he'd spent so many years protesting.

Even after gaining his position, Harvey still had many battles to fight. He had to fight the growing influence of Anita Bryant (shown only in creative splicing of news video): a former Orange Juice provocateur, turned battler for Christian values whose campaign across the country enabled anti-gay laws in various cities. There was also the barrage from State Senator John Briggs (Dennis O'Hare), who fought diligently to get all homosexual teachers fired, along with any gay supporters. Harvey's biggest roadblock comes from his own county, in fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), whose own insecurity and fear produces a hatred for Harvey even he can't understand.

Throughout the film Van Sant strategically places real news video footage into the filmed pieces of the narrative. Not only does this help bring the audience to the time period, which was the 1970's, but it purposely puts us into the media circus created in this battle for human rights. The subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, Milk knew the advantage of the press. His first campaign photographed him with full beard and a ponytail. Knowing how this would handicap his chances at the election the second time around, Harvey cut them both off, and nearly duplicated himself into another political suit. Once again, proving that not all homosexuals possess a hippie style, but can look just like anyone else.

The film's incredible attention to historical detail is impeccable, down to the members of Harvey's political team. He constructs a super team of gay men, including the feisty Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), campaign manager Rick Stokes (Stephen Spinella), reliable do-man Dick Pabich (Joseph Cross), and the lesbian political strategist Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill). No person is misrepresented or fabricated, if only because these people were as larger-than-life as they appeared. They were just a handful from the angst-filled gay community, and they were able to funnel that anger through Harvey. The film makes the point to show that Harvey had an effect--sometimes inadvertently--on many lives.

Gus Van Sant himself, is an open homosexual, though his films have never pandered toward homosexual sensibilities. He's an incredibly artistic filmmaker, known for his incredibly cerebral, small pictures, including the Palme D'or-winning Elephant and the painstakingly misguided Gerry. He has made the venture into Hollywood pictures, including the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting and the puzzling shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Milk may very well be his greatest achievement. It's personal in more ways than one, but speaks to so many audiences. Out of all of his films, this is certainly his least chilly and distant, and certainly his most triumphant.

But lets not get confused about where the film's main power source comes from, and that is the career-defining work of Sean Penn. A chilly, distant figure in his own right, Penn recreates one of the most heart-warming men of the Twentieth Century to the T. Penn has constantly battled with his own arrogant persona, but it has never stopped his growth as a brilliant actor. Milk is just another cornerstone to an well-established filmography, but it is also the most moving, the most unforgettable, and the most captivating.

There are numerous reasons why a film like Milk is relevant in today's society; maybe even more relevant today than then. Films like this must be seen, because they create a voice for all of those out there who only see certain cultures as a skin color, or a sexual orientation. Close-mindedness is brought on by those who are uneducated. The less you know about a group of people, the easier it is for some to hate it, to protest against it, to make laws which forbid it. Despite the fact that Americans frequently pat themselves on the back for the progressive-ism, we still have a lot of barriers to overcome. Harvey Milk is a man who fought to break those barriers, and even after his assassination in 1978, his work lives on.

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