Gus van Sant’s latest film Milk is a bio-pic of the political activist Harvey Milk – famous as the first openly gay man to win a position as a city supervisor in San Francisco. Harvey Milk was assassinated by a fellow colleague Dan White (an incredibly performance by Josh Brolin). The film has recently won at the Academy Awards. Yet, far from being a standard Hollywood issue movie, Milk is an often hilarious and flirty movie with some vivid acting from the likes of Emile Hirsch, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and James Franco.
Gus van Sant has often flirted with Hollywood over the years – making such features as Good Will Hunting, a dreadfully ill-conceived remake of Psycho and Finding Forrester. Along the way, this Portland-based auteur has crafted one genuine masterpiece in 2004’s Elephant and a raft of experimental and provocative films, often using mainstreams actors who are attracted to the offbeat material.
Sean Penn should play likeable people more often as his performance in Milk is gentle, playful and very funny. Whether Harvey Milk was like that in real life is open to debate – there does seem an odd strain of misogyny in the film…but maybe that’s how it was back then, and Gus Van Sant acknowledges this – that Milk’s team are suspicious of him hiring a lesbian as his campaign manager seems allude to it. Also, there is only one female character of prominence in the entire film.
Was Harvey Milk killed by a homophobe? This question is left open for debate. Milk’s killer, Dan White is played with a quiet and disturbing intensity by Josh Brolin. White’s seeming all-American morals and friendliness are but a mask hiding a very troubled individual. Milk’s assassination is seemingly the culmination of a love/hate emotion. In one scene in the film, Milk senses that White is secretly homosexual and troubled by this fact. Although Milk jokes about it,
in the end, nobody is laughing.
The death scene – after two hours of righteous drama and some wonderfully amusing scenes is very shocking. The inevitability is hard to take. The final panning shot taken from archive footage of a night-time procession and candlelight vigil after the murder of Harvey Milk and the Mayor, is breathtaking.
Gus van Sant’s recent offerings have been clinical, detached mood pieces inspired by dead rock stars, Samuel Beckett and high school massacres – and the films of Bela Tarr. His return to the mainstream should truly be heralded, and it has been, picking up many awards.
Milk is an important story that shows that civil rights is not primarily a colour-based concern but encompasses sexual orientation. Homosexuality is not a crime or sin. It is a moral or legal problem. Gus van Sant’s film is a reminder of how far the movement has come…and how far there is still further to go. Add this to extremely committed performances by Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Diego Luna (the one terrible note in the film) and Josh Brolin, one is left believing in the power of cinema and the power of hard work to change minds and opinions against the often ridiculous ideas of the moral police.
© BRWC 2010.
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