Milk: Gus van Sant

09Feb09

by The Great White Gypsy

milk1

Let’s get a couple things straight (no pun intended).  I don’t like Sean Penn.  I may have liked three or four of his films, but he wasn’t the best part of any of them.  I don’t like his acting, his politics, and for those of you readers given to passive sarcasm, no, I don’t like the way he crashes on my couch all the time doing blow with Oliver Stone and eating all my Pringles.  I’m also not a big Gus van Sant fan.  I think he’s artsy to the point of pretentious, and his handful of good films could have been better.

I loved Milk.

That’s how good it is, how honest and engaging and sympathetic the film comes across.  I waited a while to see it (for the aforementioned reasons, not the gay thing…I do live in San Francisco), and I wish I’d seen it weeks ago.

Sean Penn is Harvey Milk.  He’s a funny, buoyant, motivated little man who moves from a closet in New York City to San Francisco’s Castro district, the homosexual Mecca of the 1970’s.  After his initially cold greeting by businesses and law enforcement, he goes through several failed campaigns before finally being elected City Supervisor, and the country’s first gay official.  Shortly thereafter, he becomes the first assassinated gay official (if that spoiled the movie for you, you really should read more).  Oddly enough, his murder was more political than homophobic (damn Twinkies, they make us all crazy).

The cast in this film does an amazing job.  Not only is Sean Penn outstanding, but James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Diego Luna cross the rainbow and give amazing supporting performances.  Even Josh Brolin’s drunk, power-hungry, questionable sexuality is solid (check out pictures, he looks exactly like Dan White).

Editing was fantastic (Elliot Graham is also now forgiven for Superman Returns), flowing seamlessly between current film and historic footage of San Francisco circa 1978.

And then there’s Gus.  Several trademark shots are present; one long fixed shot from inside a storefront, a panning angle on Penn and Castro Street.  His artistic side is also there, flashing campaign slogans on screen, split-screening mass phone calls.  However, more than any of his past work, Gus tempered himself, put the flair aside, and made a down to earth, honest, and humble film.

The sequencing of the shots was great too, going from news footage the night of the assassination, to Milk recording his story, and back to the New York subway where it all began.

Harvey Milk’s story is compelling in and of itself; the man was loved by millions, and cherished by an entire city.  The fact that two Hollywood heavy-hitters that I can’t stand could get together and make an amazing film like this should tell you something.

Mickey Rourke should be careful; he’s got some stiff competition sneaking up behind him.

Final Grade: A-



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