★★★★ / ★★★★
This film made me so proud to be a part of the LGBT community. Sean Penn. Emile Hirsch. Josh Brolin. Diego Luna. James Franco. Alison Pill. Victor Garber. Joseph Cross. Lucas Grabeel. When I saw the aforementioned names a few months ago on IMDB when they were still filming in San Francisco, I knew I had to watch “Milk” and that I would love it unconditionally. Thankfully, it managed to surpass even my highest expectations. Gus Van Sant have directed impressive films in the past (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Elephant,” “Paranoid Park”) but I thought he would tell the story of Milk with a more commercial style. I was elated when I saw his signature awkward camera angles, forcing the audiences to watch crucial scenes via a reflection on a whistle or mirror and everything inbetween. Having seen the brilliant 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” I knew of the events that are about to transpire in Van Sant’s film, but that never stopped me from hoping that somehow reality and fantasy will trade places and give me a happy, satisfying ending.
The performances are nothing short of electric. Sean Penn deserves an Oscar nomination because he fully embodied Harvey Milk. From the clips the documentary showed, Penn had the mannerisms of Milk to a tee to the point of disbelief. From the majestic speeches he delivered to the more intimate moments with his lovers, I found myself thinking that I’m not watching Penn act like Milk, he IS Milk. He delivered his lines with such quiet power and wit, sometimes it’s difficult to tell if he’s simply joking or poking fun of someone (or both). It was also refreshing to see him smile so much because I’m used to seeing his more serious side (“21 Grams,” “The Interpreter,” and particularly in “Mystic River”). As for Emile Hirsch, who plays Cleve Jones, I’ve seen every movie he’s in and loved all of them (“Imaginary Heroes,” “The Emperor’s Club,” and “Into the Wild” stood out to me), but this is the film that he shines in every single frame when he’s not the main actor. He has this rare talent of mixing energy with quirkiness to make an extremely charismatic character, despite his (sometimes horrendous) hairdos. Last but certainly not least, James Franco, who plays Scott Smith, made me feel safe every time he speaks. He understands his character’s complexity so whenever he and Penn would kiss or hug or converse at the dinner table or the bedroom, you get this feeling that they’re made for each other.
Despite all of the actors’ positive qualities, their characters are far from perfect. Milk is especially flawed because he has the tendency to put his goals in front of his friends and even his own well-being. He cares so much for the advacement of everyone else’s rights that he forgets that he’s not invincible, that it’s alright to take a break once in a while and get away from all the political madness. As for Brolin’s Dan White, he’s not portrayed as a complete monster. He is portrayed as a man who cares and desperately wants to provide for his family; a man who stands up for his beliefs but at the same time suffocated by such beliefs; a man who sees so much changes before his eyes, that he’ll do anything in his power to stop such a powerful force. If we can learn anything from both Harvey Milk and Dan White, it’s the fact that one person can make all the difference.
My friend who I went to see “Milk” with said that he wishes that this film came out before people got to vote on Proposition 8 in California, which aims to “restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman and eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry” (Wikipedia). I was amazed with the many parallels that this film had with today’s issues (Milk and his army battles Proposition 6–which would have called for the state to bar gays and lesbians from being teachers). On one hand, it makes me feel like we’ve come so far from the 70’s when it comes to accepting, not just gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders, but all types of minorities. On the other hand, it makes me feel like we haven’t progressed much at all because society is still stuck in this false idea of heteronormativity.
Putting my political views aside, “Milk” is definitely one of the most important films of 2008 because discrimination is still a monster we have not defeated. We might have scratched it a bit or even cut off its arm, but it recovers every time the envelope is not pushed. People have the tendency to forget something when that something is not in front of them. Even if one does not approve of homosexuality, the film’s craft should be appreciated; Van Sant’s decision to sew in actual footages from the ’70s worked wonders because I felt like I was living in that time period. Astute implications regarding politics and the fusion of public and private spheres are enough to qualify this for a Best Picture nomination. Not to mention Danny Elfman’s majestic score really makes the audiences feel how much is at stake. At some points during the film, I literally wanted to get up from my seat and rally on the streets of San Francisco with them. Definitely see this one with friends or just random people in the cinema (just make sure you’re not alone) because there are a lot of jokes and laughter that are worth sharing. By the end, of course it’s a tearjerker because we get to witness losing the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the gay rights movement. The ending of the picture really put tears in my eyes because the story of the great Harvey Milk is finally put on the spotlight (there were a plethora of behind-the-scenes drama since the 1980’s on how the story should be told, who will direct, et cetera). Maybe this film will even inspire those who are sick of hiding from true selves to come out. I cannot help but smile a little more, stand up a little straighter, put my head a little higher, every time I imagine Harvey Milk declaring, “I am Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you!”
“You’re going to meet the most extraordinary men, the sexiest, brightest, funniest men, and you’re going to fall in love with so many of them, and you won’t know until the end of your life who your greatest friends were or your greatest love was.” — Harvey Milk to Cleve Jones