Sean Penn wins big with Milk

In Uncategorized on March 12, 2009 at 4:33 am

page6milkSean Penn won the 2009 Best Actor Oscar for his performance of the first openly gay politician Harvey Milk.  Milk was slain in 1978 by former city supervisor Dan White (a quietly desperate Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men).  Director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho) weaves the movie around Milk tape-recording his will in the event of his assassination.

The movie begins in 1970 with a closeted Milk finding his love Scott (Spider-Man’s James Franco, deftly playing both charming eye candy and serious adult) in a Manhattan subway station.  Scott and Milk go to San Francisco to begin their lives.  They open a camera shop and essentially build Castro Street into a gay neighborhood full of free love.  When the police continue random brutality for no reason, Milk decides to run for county supervisor to make civil rights changes.

By the 4th election, Milk has gained political victory, devoted followers, a strong campaign staff, and a voice to try and quiet the Anita Bryants of the world.  Proposition 6 is particularly focused on among his many passionate battles, and it was basically a gay teacher witch hunt begun by California Senator John Briggs.  The measure didn’t pass, but it’s an interesting coincidence that Proposition 8 was currently passed in California to ban gay marriage.  1978…2008…the fight for equal recognition is still going strong 30 years later, but what would have happened if Harvey Milk was still alive and passionately fighting in his radical and theatrical way?

Van Sant mixes documentary and news footage into the scenes which gives the movie a proper gritty 1970s vibe.  Writer Dustin Lance Black (HBO’s Big Love) won a 2009 Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and it’s justified as his characterization of Milk is honest and flawed, yet passionate and joyful.  Harvey Milk is not a man often in general American history books, but it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the documentaries or read the book The Mayor of Castro Street as Sean Penn absolutely embodies his spirit.  He didn’t need those facial prosthetics as his portrayal of Milk’s hope, courage, tenacity, and need to be loved saturates the screen for two hours.

Penn and Franco’s chemistry was palpable from the moment they met each other on the subway stairs, and Van Sant immediately established that this is not a closeted movie by having them immediately kissing and ending up in bed five minutes after the opening credits.  There is a lot of focus on Harvey and “his men.”  Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer) plays Cleve, a student and sometime hustler who became a very vocal activist for Milk.    Scott left Milk before the successful election but remained an active part of his life.  Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien) plays Jack, the new clingy and dramatic lover who ended up hanging himself.

Brolin doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but his conservative ex-policeman character of Dan White is extremely frustrated by Milk and all the change going on around him.  By the time he pulls the trigger, he has slowly disintegrated into a broken down man.  It’s to Brolin’s credit that he can bring sympathy to a man who committed two acts of murder but got off with manslaughter.  He and Penn have extremely tense filled scenes that build up to eventually make the ending even more harsh and climactic.

Milk is a film that demands to be seen.  Harvey Milk didn’t just want to give civil rights to homosexuals, he wanted to ensure that the elderly, poor, disabled, and misfits all had basic human rights.  He said, “This is not just jobs and issues, this is our lives we’re fighting for here.”  Penn and Van Sant have helped to keep this fight alive through art.


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