Plot: The life and death of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), who, during the seventies, became the first openly gay man to hold public office, when he was elected as a city supervisor in San Francisco.
Review: MILK is a triumphant return to the mainstream for director Gus Van Sant. Having initially made his name in the realm of independent film, he hit the big time in the late nineties after directing GOOD WILL HUNTING. After following that film up with FINDING FORESTER, which remains the most obviously commercial film of his career, he returned to the indie film world, where he directed several very non-commercial films, including GERRY, ELEPHANT, LAST DAYS, & PARANOID PARK. While I respect and admire these films, I wouldnt exactly call them entertaining (with the exception of ELEPHANT, which is a masterpiece).
With MILK, VAN SANT has once again made a film that, while still very artistically rewarding, seeks first and foremost to tell a good (and true) story. Harvey Milks life is indeed a fascinating subject, which was previously chronicled in the Oscar winning documentary, THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK.
For most of his life, Milk was a closeted homosexual, but during the late sixties he came out of the closet, and eventually moved to San Francisco, where he set up shop on Castro Street, a famously gay centric area. Eventually, he grew tired of the bigotry his community received at the hands of the establishment, including the famously gay baiting San Francisco police, and he took it upon himself to change things. He was eventually dubbed the mayor of Castro Street by his followers, and after being elected as a city supervisor, he fought a proposed amendment to the law which called for the firing of any homosexual school teachers. Due to his untimely end, Milk is, to this day, considered one of the great martyrs of the gay community, and many directors, including Bryan Singer, have tried to bring this film to the big screen. Its no surprise that Van Sant was the one who finally pulled it off, because in many ways it seems like the film hes been building up to his whole career.
Van Sant is one of the relatively few openly gay directors in Hollywood, and his films have never shied away from depicting homo-sexuality, which he did in films like MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, long before it became fashionable in the wake of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. In many ways, MILK is not all that different from GOOD WILL HUNTING, as both films are about a misfit whos afraid to be himself, once he finally sets himself free, he realizes that hes a much stronger person than he ever realized, and capable of great things.
Special note has to be made of Sean Penns remarkable performance as Milk. Ive always been a big fan of Penn, both as an actor and a director, but I really think this is the finest performance of his career. As good as Penn always is, hes still distinctly Sean Penn-like in all of his roles (with the possible exception of I AM SAM), meaning that hes always the tough guy. In MILK, Penn does something Ive never seen him do before, and no Im not talking about the fact that he acts out love scenes with other men. He smiles! I honestly (again, with the exception of I AM SAM) cannot remember the last film in which I saw Penn smile, and hes never been as easygoing and likable as he is here. Penns a shoe-in for at least a best actor nomination this Oscar season, and with good reason, as his work here is incredible.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, although to be fair, this is really Penns film through and through. Emile Hirsch, who was brilliant in Penns own INTO THE WILD, last year, is quite good here as one of Milks key campaign aids. James Franco also puts in VERY solid work as one of Milks lovers. Between this and his turn in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, this has been a hell of a year for Franco. Josh Brolin continues his incredible streak that began last year, with his role as Dan White, a bigoted fellow city supervisor, who initially becomes an unlikely ally to Milk, before finally becoming a dangerous and unhinged adversary. I should also note the great musical score by Danny Elfman, whos without a doubt a genius, but has been turning in fairly mediocre work lately. Elfman really knocks this one out of the park, and its the best thing hes done in ages.
Suffice to say, MILK is an absolutely incredible film with a lot to offer all audiences, both gay and straight. Its truly a film everyone can take something positive from, and a film that, for me at least, is one of the top films of the year- and begins to make up for a somewhat disappointing fall season at the box office. This is a film thats not to be missed.
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