Movie Review: Milk

Sean Penn’s party piece is biopics.

He’s brilliant in everything, but he really truly shines when he is portraying a real person. In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, he showed what he can do when he has a real person with a real life and history to draw from.

As Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major office in the state of California, Penn gives a subtle, human and very accurate portrayal, channelling Milk’s persona and mannerisms without letting it descend into parody or simply impression. As a man Milk was strong and courageous but with a deep vulnerability and Penn nails the balance between shy mild mannered man to emotional and angry leader expertly.

Curiously, director Gus Van Sant never really decides which story to tell. The politics of the story, Milk’s rise from idealist to City Supervisor and the struggle therein, is glossed over. Scenes showing Milk and his campaign team discuss how they will run the campaign are often followed by scenes of the team receiving news of defeat. Skimping on the details of Milk’s career dilutes the emotion of his eventual and inevitable victory.

On the flip side however, the film doesn’t delve quite deep enough into who Harvey is and what makes him do what he does. Surprisingly, by the time the film has ended we haven’t learnt a great deal more about him. We know he is a courageous man, a man who will step up to deliver a speech moments after receiving a death threat, but what else drove him to keep going and what effect did it have on him?

There is odd pacing at work as well. The film has a slow burning momentum that remains consistent, neither speeding up or slowing down. It’s peculiar, particularly as the film’s climax is specifically revealed in it’s opening moments. As the viewer, we know what will happen but the film never seems to build to it. Even as the film enters the third act the pace doesn’t pick up.

This must be intentional, and to be fair, this isn’t a thriller. It’s a snapshot of a time before gay rights were considered an issue, when homosexuals were literally rounded up and thrown in jail. It’s astonishing to think that there was a time when a politician could describe homosexuals as “perverts” during a political debate. Van Sant wisely chooses not too shy away from the more shocking elements of the prejudice displayed, some of the mindsets of the people in authority (a policeman refuses to acknowledge a murdered man’s partner as such insisting that he was his “trick”) are everybit as unnerving as the physical abuse.
The film has a terrific supporting cast, James Franco proves that he is so much more than Harry Osbourne and I desperately hope he continues to seek out challenging roles like this. He and Penn have great chemistry and Franco is confident in the role. Diego Luna comes close to taking his character over the top but brings it back and provides some pathos. The real stand out though is Emile Hirsch. Virtually unrecognisable beneath a perm and some very period glasses the one time Speed Racer plays real life AIDS activist Cleve Jones. Hirsch plays Jones with playful flamboyance but keeps the performance grounded, something that a lesser actor may have fumbled. Hirsch does great work and shows serious talent as a terrific character actor.
It all comes back to the central performance though and, as ever, you cannot take your eyes off Penn, he is magnetic and completely carries the movie. He brings a passion to the role and while the film itself doesn’t often commit to where to focus the story Penn sells it and does a great service to a man who started a truly remarkable human rights movement.

 

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Posted on February 9, 2010, in Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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