Veteran film director Gus Van Sant has been pretty unpredictable when it comes to his film projects over the years. He’s made bleak independent films like Elephant and Paranoid Park along with some fairly more conventional Hollywood projects such as Good Will Hunting. Sant’s latest film Milk probably leans more towards the latter, but this biographical drama definitely carries that unique mark of a seasoned director and with it’s more than talented cast, results in a heartfelt portrayal of a man larger than life.
Following the political career of Harvey Milk, who in 1978 became the first openly gay person to hold public office as a California city supervisor, we learn of Milk’s unflinching crusade for the gay community in San Francisco, his personal relationships and eventually his unfortunate assassination at the age of 48.
Sean Penn dons the lead role and is fearless in his portrayal of Harvey Milk. Sometimes I think Sean Penn can come off as somewhat arrogant in some of his roles, but here he’s so deeply submerged that I often forgot that I was watching Sean Penn. Not a lot of actor’s can pull of that kind of genuine feeling but Penn finds a way and should easily be able to nab a best actor nomination come round Oscar season. The supporting cast as well show significant talent slipping into the roles of some of the other important players in Milk’s life. Josh Brolin sticks out in my mind in his portrayal of Milk’s confused and angered assassin Dan White, but you can’t count out James Franco as Milk’s former lover Scott Smith or Emile Hirsch as the young Cleve Jones.
The setting is an impressive recreation of a turbulent 1970s San Francisco and like most of Sant’s previous works is photographed in a very natural quality. Utilizing archive footage Milk certainly excels at placing you in the timeframe to address a subject matter that’s surprisingly relevant today.
Milk is surely a fascinating story but in the way of biopics, it doesn’t necessarily break the mold. Yes, there are definite highlights but I still felt like this was a film I’d somehow seen before. I’m not sure whether it was the pacing or the composition of the film, but I don’t really see it sticking with me. The whole ordering of the film starting with us learning of Milk’s death, along with recurring scenes of Milk on a tape recorder actually seemed pretty conventional for a Hollywood drama… Not only this but there was definitely some slow spots, I mean I understand the importance of the subject matter and what this man accomplished but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m particularly interested in all the faucets of his life. I know the film’s called Milk but I think it kind of came to together as somewhat cluttered.
None the less Milk is an adequate drama that’s handled with the greatest of care by Van Sant and company. It didn’t strike me as any cinematic triumph or even one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, but it has heart and an important message and if manages to nab a best picture nomination, I wouldn’t really mind.