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Milk
Genre Biography
Year: 2008
 
Review:
Milk is the biography of Harvey Milk, who became California’s first openly gay elected official. The film is directed by Gus Van Sant of Elephant and more recently, Paranoid Park, and written by Dustin Lance Black of Big Love. However, its Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, who steals the show. Penn won an Oscar for this role with a powerhouse performance that breathes life back into the character of Milk. His mannerisms, speech patterns and homosexuality are staple components of the performance, and Penn hits every mark with precision. The real Harvey Milk was a gay activist in San Francisco, campaigning for gay rights in a bid to be elected to office. His ceaseless struggle, patriotism and pursuit of the American dream make Milk an inspiring and heartfelt American biography. Van Sant’s direction is strong, but not dominant like many of his other films. Penn’s presence commands the camera and he elevates a true story to indelible greatness with an Oscar-winning display. He’s supported by rising acting talents: James Franco (Pineapple Express), Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) and Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también).

Milk builds to a crescendo as a series of vignettes combine to give Harvey Milk the soap box and then the political platform. A brief background to Castro Street and Harvey’s 40-something status bring his biography to date as a small businessman enters the world of politics. The audience is immersed in San Francisco’s culture and the gay community with old archive footage from an interesting retrospective. Harvey Milk’s political struggle was not in vain and some would even argue that it was a catalyst to what gay culture in America is today. What makes Milk more accessible is that it’s not a film campaigning for gay rights. The propaganda and the marches are detailed, however Milk’s activism extended to the collective American underdog, whether it be African-Americans, the elderly, hippies or gays. There are infrequent moments of gay affection and sex, which show Penn’s commitment to the role and seek to uncover aspects of Milk’s private life.

The film makes an interesting contrast between the political aspirations of Dan White and Harvey Milk, who both lobbied as supervisors. White’s lack of distinguishable individuality made him an every American, but it was Milk’s openness and connectedness with the community that powered him. At one point, Milk is pushed to say what he’s for, instead of focusing on what he’s against. This is where the film positions itself, focusing on the negative spaces around an object. The script shows a man who knows who he is and who he’s not, against a man who’s group identity is indistinct and vague. Milk’s cast is solid and the performances drive this story of resilience, perseverance and true freedom. The production values are excellent and in many ways, Milk is like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington if he were gay. The patriotic feelings may be ambiguous for some, yet no one can deny Milk’s rise and fall story in the chapters of American history. The film’s greatness lies in its story, film-maker and amazing ensemble of actors.

The bottom line: Butter.

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