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Directed by Gus Van Sant
Produced in 2008
Main Language - English
Countries & Regions - American film
Gus van Sant's excellent biopic of activist and politician Harvey Milk is notable for more than just Sean Penn's Oscar-winning performance. Mike McCahill counts the reasons.
Gus Van Sant’s biopic of activist and politician Harvey Milk contains at least two surprises: it doesn’t screw up an extraordinary life story, and it makes you warm to Sean Penn. In a role rife with contradictions and extremes – a Jewish Republican, Milk became San Francisco’s first openly gay Supervisor before his assassination in 1978 by fellow councilman Dan White – Penn assumes the form of a born people-pleaser, leading the way out of the closet and into the halls of power in fine, Oscar-winning fashion. It’s the most approachable performance of this sometimes agonised-seeming actor’s career.
If Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay proceeds from one biopic convention – Milk narrating his memoirs to audiotape – Van Sant employs a variety of tactics and textures to ensure the experience is livelier and less constrictive than one might expect. Bright young performers (James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill) suggest the energies – sexual, as well as political – of Milk’s campaign office, while vivid archive footage fills in the culture of fear from which the gay rights movement emerged.
Only newsreel can do full justice to the virulence of former orange juice saleswoman Anita Bryant’s crusade against the ‘evil forces’ of homosexuality, but the buttoned-down White (Josh Brolin) proves another opponent altogether. The City Hall scenes pit an outsider who knew exactly who he was (‘I am Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you’, the slogan goes) against a political insider far less certain of himself: Brolin’s all-American squarejaw quivers with compelling self-doubt.
Van Sant (Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park) has oftentimes seemed amongst the most placid of American directors, but here he’s thoroughly attuned to the tumult of the times depicted: the marches, the rioting, the high, sometimes self-destructive emotions. Milk is a reminder of an era when to be gay was itself an issue, but one acutely aware of how – post-Proposition 8 – that issue may remain up for discussion yet. The results, accordingly, swing both ways: not just unusually intelligent and engrossing social history, but a continuation of its subject’s passionate, stirring, even straight-friendly advocacy.
Mike McCahill on 28th April 2009
Author of 252 reviews
An engrossing Oscar-winning biopic telling the story of California's first openly gay elected public official, Harvey Milk. Sean Penn - in the most approachable performance of his career - won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the New Yorker who became known as a gay rights activist after moving to San Francisco in the early 1970s. After two failed attempts to become elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, Milk finally made it onto the board in 1977 - but only served for a matter of months before he and the city's mayor George Moscone were shot to death by a right-wing rival.
Length: 128 mins
Aspect ratio: 16:9
Format: DVD Colour
Released: 8th June 2009
Cat No: MP907D
Subtitles: English HOH (feature only)
- Deleted Scenes
- Remembering Harvey
- Hollywood Comes to San Francisco
- Marching for Equality.
“ Penn's Martyr”
by PAUL RONAYNE on 30th November 2009
Superb biopic of Harvey Milk a New York, Jewish Republican who headed West to San Fransisco in the early seventies becoming the first openly gay man to hold political ... Read on
Superb biopic of Harvey Milk a New York, Jewish Republican who headed West to San Fransisco in the early seventies becoming the first openly gay man to hold political office.
Sean Penn brings just the right amount of humanism and sensitivity to the role of Milk who at times seems hopelessly out of synch with the younger gays, hippies and ethnic minorities in the San Fransisco area where he opens his camera shop business.
He quickly realises that prejudice exists on the West coast as well as back East and sets out with a loyal band of supporters and friends to change attitudes through the ballot box. At times its seems as if not just the city but the whole country is against the Gay Rights movement which isn't helped by some of the excesses of Milk's constituents who want action and revolution instead of Milk's level headed, political arguments.
Failing on two occasions, an always optimistic Milk eventually wins office as Supervisor for San Fransisco only two be gunned down by bigotted, failed politician Dan White(Josh Brolin) This is Penn's film from start to finish; surely a breathtaking, career defining role.
The social history of 'Milk' is important now as then. The localised problems for gays and other minorities in a city as liberal as San Fransisco can still be discerned today and makes us realise just how hard fought for are human rights by martyr's to the cause like Harvey Milk; and how fragile they remain. Hide
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