Universal // 2008 // 129 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // March 19th, 2009
"My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you!"
Milk won a pair of 2008 Oscars including Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for writer Dustin Lance Black. The film was up for several more awards including Best Picture, although it ultimately lost to Slumdog Millionaire. Despite coming in second to Danny Boyle, Milk topped the lists of many critics in 2008 including a ringing endorsement by Roger Ebert who said it was the most deserving film of the year for the top honor. I don't feel it was robbed like when Brokeback Mountain went up against Crash, but I certainly had hope this one would get tons of recognition including possibly the Best Picture award from the Academy. Certainly with less stiff competition it could have easily taken the statue. Sean Penn has not been this likable since Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he finally gets a role that asks him to be charming and lovable. What a change for the usually intense and angry man who seems to specialize in pure angst. It also marks a departure for out and proud gay director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) who replaced his impressionistic style to tell a straightforward story. Never has he been more commercial while still retaining the signature moments that makes his voice so unique. The project feels so authentic and passionate it's hard to not embrace the spirit and run out in to the streets protesting in honor of the man who inspired everything. Milk is a historically important film that also has the right emotional resonance to be something that matters. It is easily the most important message film of 2008, and at the same time an entertaining two hours.
Everything is framed by Harvey Milk (Sean Penn, Mystic River) reading his "in case I am killed" letter in to a tape recorder, which sets up a creepy tension from the start, allowing the character to narrate and comment on his own life. It's a typical biopic film that first picks up the story proper in New York during 1970 with Harvey Milk celebrating his fortieth birthday. Harvey laments that he has done nothing to be proud of in his four decades. He moves to San Francisco with his new lover (James Franco, Spider-Man), and they settle down and open a camera shop. Soon Harvey finds himself interested in city politics, and he runs unsuccessfully for offices including a City Supervisor spot. We see his growing fight for gay rights, and witness the building of a community in San Francisco around his causes. Eventually Harvey is elected to city government representing the Castro area, and he forms a tenuous friendship with the ultra conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin,Planet Terror). He fights, he rallies, he stands on a box that literally says "SOAP" with a megaphone to create street protests. Milk creates a very studied chronicle of the life of a guy who just wanted to make the world a better more understanding place. Central to the story is a fight against Proposition 6 which sought to outlaw gay and lesbian teachers from working in the California school system. In the end Harvey Milk is shot and killed by Dan White, and the climax includes the riots and memorials held for a quirky New Yorker who became the first openly gay man in the United States to hold public office.
Three things make the film work from start to finish: the transformation of Sean Penn into Harvey Milk, the script that allows the emotion to emerge from the story, and the skilled direction of Gus Van Sant who has a passion for the material no other director could invoke. The film has a mission and a message, but it never feels overly preachy or educational. Sure, it sticks closely to history and is two hours of people talking with little action. There's an unexplainable thrill to feeling as if you are watching these moments unfold in front of you, and it is seductive to see one man changing his community and the world just by being himself. What makes the film extra special is the commitment by Gus Van Sant to create an authentic experience without compromise. He filmed on location, and recreated Harvey's iconic camera store in the Castro to the smallest detail. Scattered throughout the film are the real people who were there, and they make cameos even down to the thousands of people who recreated a memorial march with candles that many had saved since they last did it for real in the '70s.
The Universal DVD is technically sound. The transfer comes across solid, but you will notice director Gus Van Sant uses a lot of intentional grain and documentary style flaws throughout the film. There's a muted palette to give it all a vintage feel. The surround mix doesn't have to do much except get the dialogue across clearly, and it does just that. Overall you won't be disappointed with the basic audio visual presentation of Milk.
Where the disc might disappoint fans is in the supplemental areas. Extras include four short video segments that add somewhat to the experience, but fall short when you consider the major players aren't shown enough. The first are three deleted scenes that simply add up to character beats for Penn. Most interesting among these is a sequence where Milk dresses up as a clown and runs around the city shoring up support for his cause in full makeup and floppy shoes. Next up is "Remembering Harvey," which includes many real people who offer their recollections of Milk and his accomplishments for 13 minutes. "Hollywood Comes to San Francisco" is the behind the scenes feature where you get cast and crew talking about what it was like to work on the project. It runs for 15 minutes and offers a lot of insight, except I couldn't help but notice Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant are not in there much at all. "Marching for Equality" looks at how the filmmakers recreated the famous protest which are major set pieces for the story. I wish we could hear more from Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant, but this appears not to be the case. Another puzzling move is to use film clips without any documentary footage of the real people. By missing these things the extras feel like fluff, and would be nothing but space filler save for the presence of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and the real Cleve Jones. And yes, if you can catch the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, it is the best supplement to this piece. It is far more detailed and has exactly what you would not see in a Hollywood release.
My only beef with the film is I wonder where all the gay actors are. Sean Penn and James Franco are amazing in their roles, and deserve all the awards and accolades critics and peers heap on them. Yet in the back of my mind I wonder why it's okay to "play gay" in Hollywood, but still a career killer for actors to be homosexual in real life even in this day and age. What a shame gay actors couldn't be more involved in this project which portrays some of the most important events in GLBT history.
Thank God for this movie after the crushing repeal of Proposition 8 in California. If Milk benefitted from anything it was the timing of its release in conjunction with the historic event where marriage was taken away from the GLBT community. We don't have a Harvey Milk anymore, and this film reminds us how badly we need men who are courageous enough to stand up to an entire state and shout "You're wrong!" while doing everything in his power to insure justice is given. What a testament to the power of film to tell the right story at the right time. On DVD Milk plays well with a strong technical transfer; however, the extras do disappoint a bit if you're looking for much depth.
Guilty of reminding us how far we have yet to go, Milk is free to
inspire a whole new generation who may have never known the man behind the
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Feast of Fools Interview With Cleve Jones
* Dustin Black's Oscar Speech