Penn and fellers'
"Take me away from this big bad world
And agree to marry me
So we can start all over again"
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Total Votes: 21
Total Points: 244
2006 #10- The Prestige
2005 #10- Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
Harvey Milk: All men are created equal. No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words.
Dan White: Society can't exist without the family.
Harvey Milk: We're not against that.
Dan White: Can two men reproduce?
Harvey Milk: No, but God knows we keep trying.
Harvey Milk: If it were true that children emulate their teachers, we'd have a lot more nuns running around.
There's a great German word, aktuell, that is difficult to translate but generally is used when one speaks of something that is topical or of pressing importance at the present time. More than anything, what struck this Thanksgiving weekend 2008 first time viewer of Gus Vant Sant's admirable Milk is how frustratingly aktuell the film is. Audiences of civil rights biopics are often encouraged to marvel at just how far we've come since the dark ages the film portrays. Released as it was days after California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 8, constitutionally enshrining a denial of basic civil rights, Milk shows in shocking relief just how little ground gay rights have covered in the time since Harvey's murder.
When I first heard about a Milk biopic, I was pretty skeptical. The Life and Times of Harvey Milk already did such a tremendous job of telling this tragic American story, and there were, to my mind, so many potential dangers in reducing the complex man and even more complex milieu of late-70's San Francisco politics to studio narrative. Several scripts had been floating around Hollywood for years, one in advanced stages of pre-production. We are so fortunate that Van Sant and Dustin Black prevailed on their mission of love and tolerance.
What Van Sant has given us is a nuanced and carefully assembled ensemble of absolutely pitch- perfect performances, so faithfully capturing the man and the personalities surrounding that dark period of San Francisco's history that many of my friends, who knew or are still in contact with Harvey, Cleve Jones and Danny Nicoletta, have said that to watch the film is to be visited by ghosts and Doppelgaengers. And with all due respect to Mickey Rourke, I think there's little doubt the Academy made the right choice. Penn crawls so deeply into the pathos, humor, political astuteness, commitment, probity, love and passion of the man that he's nearly unrecognizable.
The director has the integrity to tell the story truthfully, warts and all. Penn's Milk is a deeply flawed person, with poor judgment and a patterned and dysfunctional weakness for deeply troubled and drug-addicted younger men. And Brolin gives a deeply sympathetic performance that has the courage to show how White may well have been victimized as well. Most importantly, Penn is not vulgarized into a sanitized martyr to the cause of gay rights. The true story was much more complicated, and Van Sant reminds us that Milk's was not a political murder. It was simply murder, at once tragic and prosaic.
One of my favorite things about the film is that San Francisco is not merely a setting but a character. Nicolletta was retained as a consultant, and the carefully detailed work that location managers Jonathan Shedd and Matthew Riutta put into the set pieces, art direction and recreation of the streetscape of the late 70's Castro is an astonishing labor of love that has an almost curated and museal feel to it. It also honors the role that the neighborhood played in the energy and impetus of the gay rights movement. Berlin has Wings of Desire, New York has Annie Hall, Rio has City of God. Now we have Milk.
East German novelist Christa Wolf once wrote that there are secrets that protect us, and others that ravage us. Harvey's message, and the film's, is that keeping one's sexuality secret, to practice that form of self-denial in an attempt to protect oneself, is a dangerous ravage of the soul. Van Sant made a deliberate decision against pre-releasing the film, arguing that to do so would reduce it to a type of anti-Prop 8 agitprop and rob its potential to have a more lasting reception. And ultimately, I think that he's right. When I first saw the film, I thought it too expository, too preoccupied with telling Harvey's story and narrating every period detail, rather than letting the story tell itself. But I now understand that it's meant to be didactic. The fight for full legal and societal recognition of LGBT rights will take years. One is reassured to know for its future audiences, Milk will be there to recruit them.
Written by Vivian Darkbloom
suckeredyou's Best Film of 2008