Review Catch-up: “Milk”

February 24, 2009 at 10:38 am 1 comment

In honor of Sean Penn’s recent ‘Best Actor’ win at the Oscars, here’s my long-delayed review of Gus Van Sant’s Milk.

Milk is the story of the meteoric rise of the country’s first openly gay citizen elected to public office.  The film is told primarily through flashbacks narrated by Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), who is predicting his own death and wishes to leave behind his version of the events of the gay rights movement in San Francisco.  I won’t go into more details, as any trip to Wikipedia will tell you what happened, and I think this is a film that should be watched, regardless of whether you know the facts or not.

One thing I do want to mention is about Diego Luna’s character, Jack Lira.  Jack was one of Harvey’s boyfriends, after Harvey split with longtime boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco).  This particular story didn’t really need him, as he did nothing to move the plot forward.  His presence in Harvey’s life did impact Harvey, but in the end, it did nothing to slow down, or change in any way, the gay rights movement, which is what this film is ultimately about.

Now, about Penn’s performance.  It’s good.  It’s damn good.  But, is it Oscar-worthy?  That depends on your point of view.  This film is remarkable in many ways, considering that it could’ve fallen into typical biopic pitfalls.  What I’m surprised the film didn’t do was go into Harvey Milk’s faults.  If this had been a more conventional movie, the screenwriter and filmmakers would’ve presented the audience with faults for Harvey to overcome, thus making the audience sympathetic to this character (regardless of whether the main character is real or fictitious).  In Milk, the filmmakers don’t necessarily need to show faults, as the overarching situation provides plenty of conflict for the character to overcome.

But what I realized when I think back to my viewing experience months ago, is that this ‘overarching situation’ (ie the gay rights movement) occasionally takes over Milk.  The film isn’t just about Harvey, it’s about an entire movement.  The only time I cared about Harvey Milk the person is toward the end of the film, when Harvey’s conflict with fellow Supervisor Dan White become more prominent.  Other than that, I was more caught up in ‘the movement’ and watching it evolve and spread.

I personally believe that Milk would’ve still been a competent, entertaining, and important film if someone other than Sean Penn was involved, because the script (which recently won an Oscar) and direction are very strong.  Would it have been just as good?  Maybe, maybe not.  It’s just that I think the film itself should be getting more attention than Penn’s performance.  Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say Penn was bad or sub-par in any way (he’s certainly worthy of praise), I just feel that the film overshadows the performance.



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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Ant  |  February 24, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    I still believe the Academy is spreading their agenda with this award. I think Rourke was robbed, for sure. That was THE definition of an Oscar-worthy performance. He might not ever get there again, which is an utter shame, to take the backseat to a cause rather than a performance.

    Good review.


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