Gus Van Sant’s Milk is screening at MoMA as part of their 10th Anniversary Salute to Focus Features. Milk could arguably be called Van Sant’s Malcolm X, a historical drama of historical importance and a keystone work in the filmography of a fiercely original and occasionally frustrating filmmaker. This is what I wrote about Milk in January 2009. You can take out the reference to Prop 8 in California and swap in a reference to North Carolina’s decision to ban same-sex marriage.
In several ways, Milk might just be the best movie of 2008. For sure, there isn’t an award for which it’s so far collected nominations and wins that it hasn’t absolutely deserved.
Let’s start with Sean Penn: I am a huge admirer of the man’s work, on-screen and off-screen, but seriously now – I don’t think he’s had a role in which he’s given a non-malevolent smile in decades.
In Milk, he beams.
You really do forget you’re watching Sean Penn, broody acting genius, and are persuaded that you are seeing an entirely different persona. Penn makes us care about Harvey Milk, both in his political and his personal lives. The entire ensemble, mostly male, mostly playing gay, is of a piece with Penn’s sympathetic portrayal. James Franco, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, the great Victor Garber, and particularly Josh Brolin, as Milk’s probably-closeted, most ferocious nemesis, Dan White, all give canny and bold performances, the strongest possible support to Penn’s textured embodiment of a character very different than his own public persona.
So now Milk performs the remarkable achievements of convincing its audience of Harvey Milk’s positive legacy by helping us understand him as a person; of depicting the senseless tragedy of his assassination – without in any way making a simple monster out of the pathetic, confused Dan White; and in addition to those achievements, inspires one to march right out of the theater and join the continuing struggle against discrimination and hate of all kinds.
No one who sees Milk, other than a bigot who needs to work harder to change, will leave it wanting anything other than seeing that contemptible Proposition 8 in California repealed. I don’t like to bring up politics in this space if I can help it, but at this point, it’s a civil rights issue. Anyone can feel free to disagree on that, but if they manage to get into it with me, they ought to be prepared to have their argument entirely decimated. There is no good reason why gay people should not have the same rights as any other group in America – they love and lose and live and die just the same as the rest of us do – and this movie has the power to show why.
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