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  • John Emerson

VINTAGE REVIEW: Milk (2008) *****


Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Denis O'Hare, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Alison Pill

Director: Gus Van Sant

“My name is Harvey Milk, and I wanna recruit you.”

The 1970s in America was a trying time for the Queer Community. In the wake of Stonewall, the world was waking up to the Gay Rights Movement, and not everyone was on board. Police brutality and social rejection was ever-present, but the Gay Community was feeling stronger than ever. And it found its voice in the form of Harvey Milk. If you don't know who Harvey Milk is, there's every chance you aren't alone. But whether you know of him or not...you need to watch this movie.

Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the state of California, and his journey to this position is documented fantastically in the eponymous film, released in 2008 by director Gus Van Sant. Milk took the gay rights movement to the political world, demanding that progress would only be made would by electing a gay activist, rather than a 'gay-friendly' straight candidate. Making just as many enemies as he did allies, Milk's competitor Dan White grew more and more discontent with his gay peer with each and every one of his successes. Tragically, Harvey Milk became a martyr for his cause.

It's this martyrdom that gives the film its foreboding tone from the outset, which has to be expected due to the biopic nature of the film. But the plot doesn't shy away from the unjust events at the end of Milk's life, reminding you of his demise within the first few minutes.

We first enter the world of 1970s California through historical footage and newspaper headlines, telling of the oppression of the Gay Community by the police. Somehow, the film manages to merge this vintage footage with recreations almost seamlessly, to the point where the line between biopic and documentary is blurred. The whole way through, old TV recordings, interviews and news footage are scattered, but it never interrupts the flow or breaks the illusion of cinema. It adds to it, and makes the whole thing seem that much more real, more emotional.

Not only is Milk a political drama, with all the tropes that comes with it, it's also saturated with the revolutionary themes that are so present in Queer historical films. Not only will you find yourself hooked on the developments of Milk's political career, you'll also be pulled in by the ever-growing spirit of the Castro's Gay Community. There is a tendency for Gay Cinema to portray sad endings and troubled times for the characters, especially in historical contexts, but that doesn't make this film seem clichéd or expected, instead feeling more like a story that needs to be told. Additionally, Penn's Oscar-winning performance as the bubbly, easy to love Harvey is perfection, which keeps spirits high when all signs point to failure.

Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the constant introduction of characters. You might find yourself asking 'Who's this?', 'Where's that?' and 'Where's Scott?' as you watch, but perhaps rather than a downfall of the film, it's more of a reflection of the lives changed by Harvey Milk.

Van Sant, an openly gay director himself, earlier explored same-sex couples in films like My Own Private Idaho, but never before had he used these characters or relationships to make such political statements. The script by Dustin Lance Black would win the now famous screenwriter an Oscar, but this collaboration between writer and director proved a winning formula, as the HBO mini-series We Will Rise, which debuted last year, saw the pair reunited and was essentially an extension/sequel/spiritual sister to the work they did together on Milk.

Van Sant has often been political in his films. His Palme d'Or-winning Elephant remains profoundly relevant fifteen years later, while the social commentary in films like Paranoid Park or Gerry reflect the real lives of the twenty-first century American underclass. The majority of his work can be split into films made for a mass audience and denser more artistic work, which are designed for Cannes over the Academy Awards. Milk is the only one of his political films to fall into the latter category, with Awards-bait movies like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester much fluffier, non-political and subsequently digestible. Somehow, Milk gets that balance perfectly right.

Milk is a heart-breaking tale. I'd like to say it's equal parts heart-warming and heart-breaking, but the tragedy sadly outweighs the positive messages. Sean Penn's Milk is nothing short of spectacular. There are brilliant performances all round, from James Franco's Scott to Diego Luna's Jake, but Penn is the easiest to connect with. I was particularly impressed by Denis O'Hare's performance as John Briggs and Josh Brolin's Dan White. O'Hare became a fantastic, realistic villain, alongside stock footage of Anita Bryant. And Brolin's portrayal of Dan White was wonderfully real, having you wondering where the character was going to go next, especially if you weren't aware of how the story ends. Every member of the cast expertly captured the essence of the person they were playing, adding distinct realism to the film throughout.

Milk is so close to a perfect film. Every element comes together almost invisibly; the music, stock footage, phenomenal script and stellar acting. Van Sant, DLB and Penn are a filmic dream team, telling a story that must be told, but in a beautiful way. I'd make the (possibly bold) claim that this is not only a fascinating watch, but an essential watch.

#Milk