Milk (2008)

Director:  Gus Van Sant

Cast:  Sean PennJosh BrolinEmile Hirsch, Diego Luna, James Franco
Plot:  The story of California's first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by San Francisco Supervisor Dan White.

Genre:  Biography / Drama
Awards:  Won 2 Oscars - Best Leading Actor, Best Original Screenplay.  Nom. for 6 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score.
Runtime:  128min
Rating:  R21 for language, some sexual content and brief violence.


Who would watch a two hour-plus biographical account of a homosexual politician?  Ask Gus Van Sant and he would probably say very few.  Ask everyone else, and they would probably reply “If Sean Penn is in the movie, I’d better catch it.” 

They better do because Penn is phenomenal in the role as Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay politician to be elected and then brutally assassinated while serving his term in office.

The rise of Harvey Milk from a nobody to one of the most fascinating personalities to light up 1970s American political history is documented with incredible detail.  Penn is joined with a stellar supporting cast which includes James Franco (Pineapple Express, 2008) and Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien, 2001), who portray as gay associates of Harvey Milk.

Van Sant does not shy away from showing numerous scenes of homoerotic content.  There are eye-opening smooching scenes amongst the male members of the cast (many involving Penn’s character) and these are quite tastefully done.  Moreover, there are sex scenes but they are non-graphic and are often filmed in shadowy and dim surroundings.

In fact, Milk is the most accessible mainstream gay picture to hit the screens since Lee Ang’s breakthrough award-winning hit, Brokeback Mountain (2005).  Its documentary-drama style approach means that Milk can be enjoyed at the most basic level of intellectual entertainment or to a deeper extent, as an immersive educative experience. 

Van Sant, as always the creative oddball in modern indie American cinema, has injected his film with occasional stamps of unconventional filmmaking techniques.  One scene shows a man speaking on the phone; it slowly turns into a platter of numerous smaller frames of other people answering their phone calls. 

With this, Van Sant has efficiently conveyed the message of ‘all-round effective communication’ to viewers in just a matter of seconds.  In addition, Van Sant has opted to shoot some of the scenes of California in raw and grainy images, providing a realistic glimpse of street-life that dates back to thirty years. 

Milk has been nominated for Best Picture and Director for this year’s Academy Awards; though if the biopic were to win an Oscar, it would probably be Penn’s award than anyone else.  Josh Brolin has a supporting actor nomination here as political rival, Dan White, but his performance shows otherwise and it will be a joke if he wins. 

Milk may be one of the year’s more curious offerings, but it lacks the overall substance and energy that Oliver Stone politically-themed films have in abundance.  However, it is still quite a favorable return to mainstream cinema for Van Sant since Good Will Hunting (1997). 

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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