Milk DVD: Review By Dodd

It is loud and proud, and this is clearly the only way to portray Milk's political career.
  • Feature
  • Picture
  • Sound
  • Extras
  • Replay Value
I've always noticed a certain pattern to the films directed by Gus Van Sant. His true passion seems to be in directing small-budgeted and experimental films that do not appeal to the masses and demand thinking from its audience (ex. Elephant, Paranoid Park). However, after directing so many of those small films, Van Sant has to collect a larger paycheck as a means of funding those smaller films (ex. Finding Forrester, the Psycho remake). However, what is interesting about his most recent project is that it seems to be a combination of both. Milk, which chronicles the political career of openly-gay city supervisor Harvey Milk, takes straightforward narrative structure and star appeal, and combines it with edgy direction and controversial storytelling surrounding gay activism. Now I could sit here comparing and contrasting Milk with Gus Van Sant's filmography, but the true heart of Milk is not all about Van Sant's name being attached (although there has to be some sentimental attachment as Van Sant, like Milk, is openly gay in his work). It is no secret that the true heart of this movie is its direct storytelling and its stellar performance from Sean Penn. But I'll get to that later.

There are a lot of people out there who are probably wondering, "Who the hell is Harvey Milk anyway?". I myself have heard his name briefly in news items and have glanced at the DVD cover of the Milk doc*mentary The Times of Harvey Milk. From the little information I had gathered, I knew that Harvey Milk was homosexual and had done something extraordinary for the gay community by means of politics. And this part I knew was true. I just never knew the full story. The film does a detailed and comprehensive job of answering the question of who Milk really was as a human being and a politician. Milk (Sean Penn) began as an insurance salesman who wanted to find a place where he could mean other gay men like himself. He moved to San Francisco with his younger lover Scott Smith (James Franco) where he opened a camera shop in the Castro District. It happened that the Castro District was where other lost homosexuals were converging in a search for self-identity. Heterosexual merchants in the area were the minority and had the choice of profiting from their new patrons or finding a more conservative area to do business.

It was Milk's influence in the Castro District that made him a celebrity. He was known as the Mayor of Castro Street due to his outspokenness and leadership skills. In fact, he ran for city supervisor in San Francisco numerous times before winning in 1977 and becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to a public office. It was in his position that he fought the state of California from passing a law that would fire gay teachers; a law proposed by conservative politicians with the assumption that gay teachers are sexual predators. His strong leadership was met with tragedy when he was shot dead by conservative city supervisor Dan White (played here by Josh Brolin).

Now before you get upset, let me make it clear that mentioning Milk's death is not considered a spoiler. Like watching United 93, one should have a pretty clear idea of the tragedy that is about to befall on our protagonist. The idea behind Milk is not to focus on his assassination. In fact, the film treats his death with such a mundane mood and little build-up, which makes it even more chilling. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black had skimmed through previous treatments for the film that focused on the death of Milk and the trials of Dan White. Black's screenplay focuses more on why Harvey Milk is such a significant figure. Milk believed in playing his political cards right by campaigning in a conservative suit, but he never believed that one gay person should stay hidden in the closet. The movie revolves around the openly gay supporters who convened in his camera shop (this includes Emile Hirsch as one of his main campaigners Cleve Jones) and never gave up on putting Milk in office to fight for the acceptance of homosexuals in society.

Black's screenplay is a large part of what makes Milk effective, but it also could not be a successful product without Penn's performance. If you've seen interviews with Penn or heard about him in the news, it is no secret that the guy is somewhat of a surly a-hole with insecurity issues. This is why it is truly amazing to me when Penn embraces roles such as this. Penn here is not just acting as Harvey Milk, he has become Harvey Milk, and there is not the slightest sign of hesitation in his performance. When he has a love scene with James Franco, the scene is effectively tender. When he makes an over-the-top political appearance, it does not feel like Penn is hamming things up. There is a real sense of genuine authenticity in Penn's performance and it is not hard to believe that the actor did his research. Major props also go to James Franco in the supporting role as Milk's lover. The actor is gradually making his way from heart-throb to true thespian. If I have point out a downside in performance, I would have to criticize Diego Luna as another one of Milk's lovers who had attachment issues. Maybe I do not blame Luna so much as I do the inclusion of this character in the screenplay. While everyone plays their roles with a sense of conviction, Luna as Jack Lira is flamboyantly clingy. Perhaps this is how the man was in real life, but the character really adds a sense of annoyance to the movie's subtle and hypnotic tone.
The DVD does not have as many features as expected considering the depth of the subject. There is a trio of featurettes that essentially do the same thing. They interview people who knew Harvey Milk, some of whom are portrayed in the film. These interview snippets are juxtaposed with scenes from the film itself. These are divided into three pieces, but they really could have been lumped together into one doc*mentary.

The DVD also includes deleted scenes.
Widescreen. Gus Van Sant really captures the Castro District the way it was in Milk's heyday. I wasn't there, but something about his shots scream accuracy and authenticity.
5.1 Dolby Surround. Danny Elfman puts together the score and is once again a master at his craft. It is difficult to believe that the man behind Tim Burton's scores can also be so subtle and poignant.
The film is on a single disc. The cover art is a collage of freeze frames from the film, and a picture of Penn as Milk removed from the original poster art.
This tiny frustration with Luna's character aside, I cannot bring myself to say that Milk is a flawed film. It is a perfect product with unrestrained direction from Gus Van Sant, a very whole screenplay from Dustin Lance Black, and a performance from Sean Penn that proves once again he is one of the greatest actors working today in the industry. The only thing holding this film back from a Best Picture nomination is the Academy's preference to play it safe with more mainstream-friendly nominations. I suppose this could be a fair warning to anyone with slight homophobia that Milk is not a family-friendly TV biopic. It is loud and proud, and this is clearly the only way to portray Milk's political career. After all, being restrained is exactly what Milk fought against, and I believe he would be proud of this picture.

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Comments (1)

  1. 313td

    Nice review.

    6 years agoby @313tdFlag