‘Milk’: uplifting and surprisingly funny | AspenTimes.com

‘Milk’: uplifting and surprisingly funny

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Focus Features InternationalSean Penn stars as Harvey Milk in the biopic "Milk."
Photo Credit: Phil Bray |

In “Elephant,” his ultra-cryptic 2003 film about a school shooting, Gus Van Sant left everything up in the air: motive, history, consequences.

After several years working in the indie, low-budget world, Van Sant returns to the land of movie stars and straightforward storytelling with “Milk.” The story of real-life gay activist and San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the U.S., is right out of the Hollywood biopic realm. Van Sant ” and Sean Penn, who portrays Milk ” show us the big, life-turning moments; the development of the protagonist’s character; an easily grasped story arc built around Milk’s several failed political campaigns and the toll it takes on his romantic life.

But in “Milk,” there is at least one remnant from Van Sant’s time in the indies, where plots don’t need to be wrapped up so tight. The film never really answers the question that is, in a way, the logical heart of the story: Was Milk killed because he was gay? On the same day in 1978 that Dan White, a fellow member of the Board of Supervisors, assassinated MIlk, he also killed San Francisco mayor George Moscone, who was straight. A Catholic and former policeman, White represented a conservative district, and saw himself as a protector of so-called family values.

But White, played by Josh Brolin, seemed to be growing comfortable with Milk, who is given a shy charm by Penn. White was occupied by personal demons that had nothing to do with Milk’s homosexuality. His anger, as the film presents it, comes out of his belief that MIlk has reneged on a back-room political deal the two had made. And White’s homicidal explosion stemmed from Milk and Moscone’s blocking White’s attempt to withdraw his resignation from the board. In the end, White’s rage might have been fueled not by social values, not by politics, but by finances: He needed a job.

This creates an awkwardness in the film, because “Milk” is very much the story of Milk’s homosexuality. While Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black ” both of whom are nominated for Oscars, as are Penn and Brolin, and the film itself ” skip Milk’s childhood, and any issues he may have had coming out, it hits on several other gay themes. A gay teenager from the Midwest calls Milk in a desperate plea to save him from the ostracizing he faces at home. Milk’s entire political climb is a microcosm of the struggle for gay acceptance and rights, and the film itself advances that battle a step forward: Penn plays Milk not as a limp-wristed fag, but as smart, focused, funny and likable. Van Sant, who is gay himself, doesn’t shy away from depicting homosexuals as having enhanced appetites for sex. Nor does he back off from physically intimate scenes between Milk and his long-term boyfriend Scott (James Franco).

One issue that is never raised is AIDS, and this comes as a breath of fresh air. Milk’s life preceded, by a few years, the AIDS crisis, and Van Sant wisely avoids using it as a dark cloud on the horizon.

The biggest, and most satisfying element of the film is the community-building that Milk does. The film focuses tightly on the Castro district, where the Long Island-born, Jewish Milk found his haven and his mission. (And his day job, running a small camera shop.) Milk has a big agenda, but he seeks to achieve it by working on the small-scale ” his neighbors and fellow businessmen in the Castro, and the carefree young men who wander through the district. Among these is Cleve (Emile Hirsch), a drifting hustler who, taken under Milk’s wing, becomes politically activated.

It might be that the unsatisfying thematic ending is the only serious flaw here. Penn is as good as he’s ever been ” which is saying a lot ” as Milk. “Milk” offers realism, history, social relevance and a distinct point of view about the world while also delivering an uplifting, and surprisingly funny, story. And if Van Sant sacrifices objectivity about his subject, it is for the good cause of leaving the viewer inspired.


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