By Alec Horowitz
As if Gus Van Sant didn’t have an impressive enough resume. His credits include ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’ and ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. Though, the one thing one would never pin down Gus Van Saint is that of a political director. He has made mostly quirky character studies. Not that he hasn’t made films that take on issues, like the underrated ‘Elephant’, his 2003 film about the lead up to a school shooting. What can I say about his direction of Milk? Maybe that he pulled it off. He seemed to be able to make ‘Milk’ and a small film in 2007 called ‘Paranoid Park.’ I do not know how he managed to do both of these films. ‘Milk’, with all of the documentary footage added with the many scenes he shot must have taken more than one year to shoot. There’s no way he shot this film in one year, or at least I wouldn’t think.
‘Milk’ works as both a political thriller and a biography picture. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, best known as a writer on the HBO drama ‘Big Love’, wrote one forceful script and has easily secured a spot for best original screenplay during this year’s Oscar season, as has Gus Van Sant for best director. Sean Penn, though, has achieved more than just an Oscar nod. He has secured his place as one of the best actors of this generation. He is in almost ever scene of ‘Milk.’ From the moment we meet Harvey Milk, a man sitting there with a tape recorder to the final moments of his life, Sean Penn brings a powerhouse performance to every scene. Harvey Milk is a man who basically rose from nowhere to become the national voice for gay rights and the openly first gay man elected to office.
Though, when making a film about a figure that is fighting for a cause, there’s always a chance the film will feel forced. ‘Milk’ doesn’t feel forced. Maybe that’s because Van Saint didn’t try to normalize the gay culture as to the way people think is normal, but instead honestly shows it for what it is. Also, it should be noted that his portrayal of the gay culture goes along with Van Sant’s stylized style of filmmaking. It’s also his stylized style of filmmaking that doesn’t allow Milk to feel like a standard bio picture. Milk has the feel and look of an art house film, judging by scenes like a telephone call made by Cleve Jones (Emile Hersh) in which the screen becomes a colorful array of other people he is calling. Though, he adds touches to fight serotypes against gays. He does this mainly through the relationship between Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones. While people who confuse homosexuality with pedophilia would think that Harvey Milk would come onto Cleve Jones, just because they are both gay, he never does. Instead he acts more like a father figure to him, treating activism like the family business.
Josh Brolin has become an interesting actor, playing Milk’s opponent and sometimes-strange friend, Dan White. Milk plays up Dan White as not a villain but a human being who snaps. The scene where he comes in drunk and saying he has issues too is a scene where you feel sorry for Milk’s rival, as does Milk. He plays Dan White with a mix of likability and villianous, though for those who do not know the story of Harvey Milk, one doesn’t quite see what’s coming with Dan White. Gus Vaint Sant was the right director for this film. This was his biggest production. Sean Penn has secured his place among classic performances.
This film is a remainder of why the movies are important. Harvey Milk was a man who seemed to use the words ‘hope’ and ‘change’ a lot. Remend you of anyone? Even Barack Obama can’t get away with saying gays should have equal rights. For all the progress we have made in this country, we still have a long way to go. From the opening credits with just still photographs and footage of the early days of the gay rights moment to an affecting moment where Harvey gets a phone call from a boy who says he’s going to kill himself, because his parents want him fixed.
The homosexual cinema has been an important part of the independent film world for years. Milk is a triumph for the homosexual cinema. Released by Focus Features, one of the leaders in the independent film world, Milk is a remainder as well of why independent films matter. Harvey Milk must have been a wonderful man. This is a movie all should see. Gus Van Sant has crafted his masterpiece. Gus Van Sant has given us his ‘Malcolm X’.