Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Own it:
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel, Brandon Boyce, Howard Rosenman, Kelvin Yu, Jeff Koons
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence
Running Time: 128
Date: 10/28/2008

Milk (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Fresh 'Milk'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Gus Van Sant leaves behind his recent string of quasi-experimental films for this Hollywood biopic, although it's not exactly a mainstream kind of affair and it has many of Van Sant's outsider touches. Sean Penn plays slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk (1930-1978) as if he were born to the part; he requires some minor hair and makeup touches, but otherwise, it's a true physical and spiritual embodiment (this may have been the ultimate reason that Penn moved to the Bay Area years ago).

It begins on Milk's 40th birthday, when he picks up Scott Smith (James Franco) in a New York subway and they impulsively move to San Francisco. (Van Sant presents their love scenes together with no fanfare or special treatment.) They open a camera shop in the Castro District but find that the neighbors are not very welcoming to an openly gay couple in business. So Milk jumps into action, forming rallies and marches and trying to influence the flow of politics.

After several unsuccessful runs the city zoning changes, giving the Castro its own voice, and Milk wins a seat in City Hall. Unfortunately, one of his fellow freshmen is Dan White (the remarkable Josh Brolin), a confused, underconfident fellow who would eventually, at the end of his rope on November 27, 1978, stroll into the building and shoot and kill both Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).

Viewers who want more journalistic details are urged to rent Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen's great documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), though Van Sant lifts plenty of vintage footage from that and other sources to give the movie lots of 1970s flavor (and to save money on set dressing).

Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black eventually fall prey to the biopic formula by providing too many highlights and not enough details. Specifically, we never learn much about Scott -- other than the fact that he's nice -- and we never learn much about Milk's subsequent boyfriend, the needy and volatile Jack Lira (Diego Luna).

The real meat of the movie comes through Milk and White's friendship and rivalry. They have maybe half a dozen scenes together, little meetings in the office and even at a Christening (!). It's a fascinating, and even touching arc as the two men struggle to understand one another. White may be the year's most sympathetic, fully-rounded villain (outside of the Joker), but the movie has a more, purely evil villain in the form of anti-gay signer Anita Bryant, here shown, thankfully, only as herself in old clips. (No actor could truly portray her brand of sweetened, frosted hatred.)

More politically-minded viewers will notice parallels to current events (such as California's Prop. 8) and appreciate the film on that level (the film speculates that, if Milk had lived, he could have gone on to exert some positive influence in the White House during the 1980s). Emile Hirsch has some good moments as Cleve Jones, who worked on Milk's campaign and went on to develop the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. And Allison Pill plays Anne Kronenberg, the campaign's "token lesbian." All in all, it's a well above-average achievement, one that will hopefully catch on outside San Francisco.

Movies Unlimtied