Milk’: By delivering poignant depth, this film hits stirring heights
Posted on December 7, 2008
Filed Under Uncategorized
Once in a while, a movie arrives at such a perfect moment, its message and meaning so finely tuned to the current zeitgeist, that it seems less a cinematic event than a cosmic convergence, willed into being by a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the stars.
Such are the goose bumps induced by “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s vivid, affecting portrait of Harvey Milk, who in 1978 joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as the first openly gay man to be elected to American public office. Just 10 months later, he was assassinated by former fellow board member Dan White, who moments earlier murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Today, Milk’s legacy — as a pioneer, strategist, martyr and icon — still reverberates in ways the director wisely leaves to viewers to contemplate.
Whether the title character is invoking hope in a speech that eerily anticipates this year’s own historic “first,” or inviting ironic reflection on the recent passage of California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, “Milk” resonates with uncanny depth, faithfully representing a bygone era while subtly tapping into the current one.
The list of things “Milk” — which opens today in the South Bay — gets right is a long one. But the first item has to be Sean Penn, who undergoes a startling physical transformation to play the title character. By way of simple changes in posture, facial expression and mostly voice, Penn virtually disappears into his character, burying any trace of native mannerism or accent and emerging as a wholly convincing New York Jewish boy made good.
Elfin, mischievous, often concealing a quiet giggle behind shy hands, Penn leaves his smoker’s mumble behind to explore his wispier upper register, and the high-pitched Long Island drawl that emerges has the almost instantaneous effect of making him vulnerable and even childlike.
Thanks in large part to Penn’s sensitive portrayal, when Milk picks up a young stranger in a Manhattan subway station as the movie opens, the encounter doesn’t feel predatory. Instead, it bespeaks the isolation and furtive search for intimacy engendered by years of stigma and persecution.
The young man in question, Scott Smith (James Franco), winds up going home with Milk to celebrate the latter’s 40th birthday, and two years later he moves with Harvey to San Francisco, where they set up house in the Castro neighborhood, and where Milk proceeds to open a camera shop, become involved in local business issues and, in short order, run for office.
As the Castro takes root as a gay destination, Harvey increasingly finds his political voice, discovering a talent for coalition-building and a genius for commanding press attention. A longtime opera fan, Milk understood one of the most crucial axioms of getting and keeping power. “Politics is theater,” he says to a potential acolyte. “It’ll be fun.”
As “Milk” vibrantly conveys, no one had more fun than Milk himself, whether in the rhetorical jujitsu of his stock speech opener (“I am Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you”) or as the Toscanini of the photo-op, introducing a “pooper scooper” law that proves hugely popular. With impish glee, Penn imbues Milk with that odd mix of idealism, compulsion and ambition that drives so many politicians. But, more crucially, he captures the joy. As Milk goes toe-to-toe with his opponents, who range from San Francisco’s gay establishment to a homophobic state legislator, he’s not just a gay warrior but also a genuinely happy one.
See Milk’: By delivering poignant depth, this film hits stirring heights
San Jose Mercury News, USA -
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