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D: Gus Van Sant
W: Dustin Lance Black
S: Sean Penn; Josh Brolin; James Franco
It is hard not to watch Gus Van Sant’s consummate and probing look into the San Francisco gay rights movement, “Milk,” without thinking of the controversy over Proposition 8 this past election, and how 30 years later the same debates and ideas have reverberated across a country that clings to an idea of progress.
Van Sant, who has spent the last decade doing wonderful, below-the-radar independent work, resurfaces with a vengeance. He imbues the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the US, with a brilliant balance of visual artistry and real historical prowess.
Sean Penn’s beautiful performance in the title role runs beyond mimicries and quirks; he gives Harvey Milk such understated depth and a broad range of complex and often devastating emotions. It may be the best performance Penn has ever given, and he draws with balanced shades of flamboyance and stark inner struggles of societal acceptance.
The rest of the ensemble features terrific dramatic work from James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin. As Dan White, Milk’s chief ideological and political opponent on the San Francisco supervisor board, Brolin gives the film needed emotional juxtaposition. Continuing his rise as a stunningly versatile actor, he gives White an impervious emotional sheet masked by intense rage, a politician unable to find personal or professional satisfaction.
“Milk” is staged more like a docu-drama, with Van Sant and editor Elliot Graham mixing archival footage among the dramatic footage, giving the film a sense of place and also a necessary historical immediacy, coupled with the sharply articulated and thoroughly detailed screenplay by Dustin Lance Black.
But why it is such a strong picture, why it transcends its bounds as either biography piece or historical rumination is that Van Sant makes every shot an expression of a distinct idea. With gorgeous cinematography from Harris Savides, each sequence feels important and unique, utilizing various editing tricks, composition changes, and lighting strategies.
In all its two hours, there is not a false note in the entire film because each moment is treated as totally important and vital. Creativity and artistic impulse brim from each expertly coordinated camera movement and each sharply choreographed edit.
While not enough praise can be given for the phenomenally affecting performances of every single actor in the film, it is ultimately Gus Van Sant’s souring passion that gives it its glorious heartbeat.
Though a necessarily political film, and one that does sympathetically take the pro-gay political stance, “Milk” never feels burdened by its controversial ideologies. Nor is it even a film about Harvey Milk so much as it is a film about the gay rights movement. And even then, it is not so much a film about the gay rights movement as it is a triumphant, rattling cry for the rights of humanity and the power of individuals to shape the course of public thought.
In that respect, “Milk” is a thoroughly American film, for it is not only about a significant moment in a turbulent time in our recent history, but it is also about the steadfastness of the unwavering American hero. It is a masterful, artistic love letter to hope and perseverance.