Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Sean Penn,
Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco
Director: Gus Van Sant
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 129 Minutes
Release Date: March 10, 2009
“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you!”
A few weeks back on Oscar night, I was watching the ceremony with some close friends of mine. Both of them were huge fans of The Wrestler, and were rooting for Mickey Rourke to win Best Actor. I, on the other hand, was hoping to see Frank Langella pull off a much deserved upset, as I thought his turn as Richard Nixon was the best of the five nominees.
But as soon as Sean Penn was announced as the winner for his performance in Milk, my friends immediately labeled the victory as nothing more than a political gesture on behalf of the Academy as a way of fighting back on Proposition 8, and I’d have to agree in that regard. But in the midst of their frustration, I turned to them and admitted, “Guys, I saw Milk and The Wrestler in the same day and if there was ever a time to split an Oscar win between two actors, it would have to be now because they both deserve it.”
I stand by those very words. Sean Penn is simply one of the greatest actors of all time and any time he’s awarded acting’s highest honor, it’s always well deserved. If I still find his Oscar winning performance in Mystic River to be his finest work to date, his performance in Milk is easily at a very close second place…which is still saying a lot.
And the film itself, which also won the Oscar for Original Screenplay, is a brilliant piece of work and very much one of the best films of 2008. I’ll even go as far to say that it’s director Gus Van Sant’s finest cinematic achievement to date. It does follow your basic Biopic conventions, but since I was unfamiliar with the story of Harvey Milk, I found it to be a completely riveting and truly moving experience.
The film chronicles six years of Milk’s life, starting in 1972 when he and his partner, Scott Smith (James Franco) leave New York City for San Francisco. The two intend on opening a camera store on Castro Street, which at that point was becoming popular hangout spot for gays. But hostility from neighborhood businesses and escalating brutality from the police help drive Milk to become an activist.
As time progresses, Milk draws an increasing number of followers in the struggle for equal rights. His support wasn’t limited to the gay community, but also union workers who asked for his help in the boycotting of Coors beer from all of the gay bars in the neighborhood. In exchange, Milk requested that the union agree to hire openly gay employees, which was immediately granted.
Having already been dubbed the Mayor of Castro Street, Milk’s activism would eventually enter the political scene. He forged an alliance that included, in addition to union workers, blacks, Latinos, teachers, longshoreman and liberal politicians. Finally in 1977, after three failed attempts, Harvey Milk won the election for the Board of Supervisors, making him the first openly gay man to be elected to office.
Milk’s mission was to not only gain equal rights for the gay community, but to challenge prejudice head on. Once he was elected, he demanded that his followers no longer hide their sexual orientation, as a way of letting the rest of the country realize that they have a voice in politics. It was his main strategy in challenging foes such as Senator John Briggs and singer Anita Bryant.
Once in office, the film shifts its focus on the rather difficult political relationship between Milk and fellow Board of Supervisors member Dan White (Josh Brolin). Although White supported family values and was known to be against homosexuality, the film suggests that he was possibly hiding a secret affection for the newly elected official. This is illustrated brilliantly in a scene where a drunk White confronts Milk by crashing a celebration party following a political victory.
White, rivetingly portrayed by the Oscar nominated Brolin, slowly became unbalanced, eventually resigning his position on the Board. Then on November 27, 1978, he walked into City Hall and assassinated both Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. In the film’s epilogue, we learn that White’s lawyers came up with the excuse that his intake of junk food resulted in the incident, which is now referred to as “The Twinkie Defense”.
The final segment of the film had me moved to tears more than any scene in recent memory. We see a candlelight march in Milk’s memory that reaches as far as the eye can see. It’s not the first biopic to feature such a scene, but when you take into consideration everything Harvey Milk tried to accomplish, in addition to how the sequence was done, it makes all the more emotionally devastating.
Milk is a shining example of remarkable filmmaking. In addition to the remarkable work from Penn and Brolin, there’s phenomenal supporting work from the likes of James Franco and Emile Hirsch. And through both recreating the time period and incorporating actual news footage, Gus Van Sant has made a most exceptional political film that deserves a place alongside such greats as JFK and Malcolm X.
I actually saw the film in theaters nearly a month ago, and I can certainly say that the Blu-ray presentation perfectly matches the theater quality shot for shot. There’s plenty of beautifully detailed imagery here, compliments of cinematographer Harris Savides, which looks even more tremendous in high def. Colors are quite strong and the 1080p format provides a truly crisp picture. The only minor setback is the stock news footage incorporated into the film, for obvious reasons.
The DTS HD track definitely makes the most of what is strictly a dialogue oriented film. The many scenes involving crowd demonstrations, or ones where Milk delivers a speech via megaphone, are the highlights. Dialogue delivery is absolutely superb and the playback of numerous 70s era songs is a most terrific bonus.
Though I wish more had been included, the disc does feature three worthy featuerettes. “Remembering Harvey: Meet the Man Known as Milk” features interviews with many real life figures from the story. “Hollywood Comes to San Francisco” takes a look at what went into recreating the time period, and “Marching for Equality” reveals how several crucial protests from our history were filmed for the movie.
Milk is a film I strongly encourage everyone to see. Both the level of filmmaking and the importance of the story being told make this one of the absolute best Biopics of recent memory. And the acting is simply of monumental proportions, as Sean Penn once again illustrates why he is one of our greatest living actors.