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Wednesday, March 18, 2009
  DVD Review: Milk

Milk is a film about the life of ‘70s gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. The film falls squarely into the “inspirational biopic” subgenre, but that’s not to say it’s a paint-by-numbers affair. With a top-notch director like Gus Van Sant behind the camera and an excellent script by Dustin Lance Black (who recently won the best original screenplay Oscar for his work), Milk is the kind of biopic that most filmmakers seem to be trying to make when they take a stab at the genre. It’s educational, uplifting and gets its message across without being heavy-handed about it.

The first thing that warrants mention about Milk, and it’s probably pretty obvious at this point, is that Sean Penn is absolutely brilliant in the title role (which is somewhat unsurprising considering he just won the Oscar for it). He really is amazing in Milk; I went into the movie with the belief that Penn is one of the best screen actors working today, and I was still blown away. I haven’t seen any footage of the real Harvey Milk in action so I can’t speak to Penn’s accuracy in terms of mimicking his voice and mannerisms, but he really makes Harvey Milk come alive as a character. Van Sant, Black and company do an excellent job of extrapolating Milk’s campaign for equal rights for gays and lesbians into a crusade for equal rights for all people, elevating him into a figure on par with Martin Luther King Jr.

But as impressed as I was with Penn’s performance, it was Josh Brolin who really wowed me, mostly because Penn got so much attention that I almost forgot Brolin was even in Milk. Between No Country for Old Men, Oliver Stone’s W. (which I actually quite liked, and Brolin was astonishing in it) and now Milk, his career renaissance is truly complete. He’s transitioned from being an actor on a great comeback streak to simply being a great actor.

I also have to single out director Gus Van Sant for praise. He’s a filmmaker I find very interesting (even if I don’t always like his movies), and his drive to experiment with the form usually elicits some pretty fascinating results (like the school-shooting drama Elephant) – as well as some odd misfires (like his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho). But with Milk Van Sant returns to “mainstream director” form previously seen in Good Will Hunting. He brings just the right amount of style to Milk, never losing sight of the fact that this is Harvey Milk’s story, not an excuse to showcase cute new camera tricks. (Many of the scenes between Harvey and Brolin’s character, Dan White – whom Harvey suspects might be a closeted, frustrated gay man himself – are framed as wide shots of hallways and chambers with the two characters sort of shunted off in the corner, illustrating the tension between them, but it's never distracting.) As frustrating as Van Sant’s more experimental films can be, he hits it out of the park with Milk.

If there’s a knock against the movie, it’s that it’s maybe too nice to Harvey Milk. Aside from some personal-life troubles, he’s portrayed here as one of the nicest, kindest, sweetest, most noble men who ever lived. Which he very well might be – as I said, I know next to nothing about Harvey Milk aside from what’s in this movie, and I find boning up on stuff like this on Wikipedia just for a review kind of intellectually dishonest – but it felt like Black’s script came a little too close to total lionization. It’s a minor gripe – and one I confess to including out of a sense of obligation, because I really couldn’t find any legitimate problems with the movie – because Milk really works on just about every level. If the price of this movie’s message (it’s sort of amazing to me that many of the issues Harvey Milk fought for in the 1970s remain “controversial” to this day, and I don’t mean that in a good way) is that Harvey Milk, the film character, is an almost unreasonably good a person, then it’s a small one, and I think it was well worth paying. Milk is pretty much exactly what a biopic should be; by the end credits, I felt like I learned something (a lot actually), I was entertained and even moved. It’s a wonderful film that doesn’t sacrifice being entertaining to get its point across, and I recommend it highly.



The Milk DVD is another example of a DVD that doesn’t have a ton of bonus features on it, but what’s there is high quality. The best featurette is ‘Remembering Harvey,’ a retrospective on the real Harvey Milk, with interviews with the real-life versions of many of the characters in the movie. I was actually quite moved when the real-life Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsch in the film) recalls the candlelight vigil in San Francisco immediately following Harvey’s death. It’s a great look at the man whose life and struggle inspired the movie.

Also included are featurettes on the production in San Francisco and the importance of filming at the locations where the events in the movie really took place, as well as a look at the recreation of the San Francisco vigil scene. Finally there’s a couple of deleted scenes, and as usual, the decision to remove them makes sense, but they’re nice glimpses at Penn doing his thing. Overall, this is a solid DVD for a great movie.

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