In thinking about how to start off my review of Gus Van Santâ€™s film, I found myself thinking about why I appreciate the movies I do. This year, it ranges from films like â€œWall-Eâ€ and â€œSpeed Racerâ€ to â€œSlumdog Millionaireâ€ and â€œMan on Wire.â€ The thing all of these wildly divergent films have in common is that each of them have inspired me, whether itâ€™s in the achievements they chronicle or the way they tell their story. Inspiration is the backbone of Hollywood, at least in terms of what it sells the American public. Inspiration has been all over the place this year, whether itâ€™s in the election of Barack Obama as our next President, the forementioned films, or my beloved Falcons coming back from rock bottom to make the playoffs this year.
Itâ€™s also the driving force of Van Santâ€™s latest film, a triumph of the human spirit and the audacity to stand up for what you believe in that also rates as one of the most riveting biopics in recent memory. Never content to play it safe in content or style, Van Sant digs deep into his artistic playbook and the underlying emotions in Dustin Lance Blackâ€™s screenplay in chronicling the story of Harvey Milk, who in the mid-â€˜70s became the first openly-gay person elected to public office when he became a city supervisor in San Francisco. His assassination, as well as that of Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), by fellow city supervisor Dan White made him a martyr and his fight a cause celebre that the gay community is still fighting, as evidence by the recent passage of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California. But despite the open homosexuality and bold strokes Van Sant is unafraid to put in his film, Milk’s fight was a universal one against prejudice of any kind- any parallels with political figures past (Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X come to mind) and present (see President-elect Obama) are entirely coincidental, but only goes to illuminate how universal his story is. The audience I saw the film with seemed to be inspired- it’s a rare occurrence when applause happen at the end of a movie; it happened at the end of this one.
A cause celebre all it’s own, however, is Sean Penn’s tour de force turn as Milk. The Oscar winner best known for dark drama (“Mystic River,” “Dead Man Walking”) cuts loose to embody Milk’s immense charisma with warmth and wit to spare, but brings his considerable chops to scenes of unease and impending doom, from the bold act of standing at the mic during a gay freedom parade despite a threat on his life, the sad fate of a lover (Diego Luna) who can’t take sharing Harvey with his cause, or seeing him tape his last will and testament alone in his apartment. These moments of him taping his will and story frames the movie as he chronicles his rise from a scared to come out 40 year old in New York to the self-proclaimed “Mayer of Castro Street”- a small area in San Francisco the gay community stakes out as its’ own- to a passionate politico savvy in the ways of politics (how he gets people to back a pet gay rights ordinance passed is a familiar and funny tactic to political followers) but staying true to the personal reasons for his fight. It’s in his taping of himself where two of his most famous sayings came from- his motto of “You gotta give ’em hope,” which was put on a recently-erected bust of Milk in San Francisco, as well as his unnerving prophecy of his own assassination, where he says, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Inspiring stuff. Milk is my kind of politician, even if it took him a bit before he became the icon he ended up being. Still, it’s more exciting to watch an individual go through the growing pains of becoming a hero than it is to have them seemingly born one.
(This is why the personal story is so important in politics people, and it’s hear to stay. Deal with it.)
And make no mistake, Milk is a hero, and Van Sant’s film is a fitting tribute. Van Sant is an odd duck as a filmmaker- one who goes between studio gloss (“Good Will Hunting,” “Finding Forrester”) and indie grit (“Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho”) while always carrying that iconoclastic eye for material- how else do you explain something so unquestionably unnecessary, yet so equally-fascinating, as that shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” he did ten years ago? Admittedly, some of his recent indie experiments in form (the Cobain-inspired “Last Days,” this year’s earlier “Paranoia Park”) reek of pretension and “look at me” daring, but you can’t question the dark wit and probing purpose he achieves in his best films (including his fierce and funny 1995 satire “To Die For”). “Milk” has the best of both of Van Sant’s cinematic worlds- the urgency of his indie films (created primarily in the you-are-there vibrancy of Harris Savides’ cinematography) with the Hollywood sentiment of his mainstream films (which comes through most vividly in Danny Elfman’s poignant but adventurous score), which makes the movie instantly appealing to the masses. How he can do something like that and not sell out himself or Milk’s story is a gift from the movie Gods.
So is this cast. Penn is the clear star of the film, but Van Sant’s put together a supporting cast that matches his rebel star’s spirit and passion. Rating highest in a cast of equals are James Franco as Scott Smith, the lover Milk meets in New York, and who leads his early campaigns before leaving him, even if he doesn’t leave the cause; Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, a street hustler-turned-gay activist who later began the AIDS name quilt project that has itself become iconic in that tragedy’s fight for human rights; and especially, Josh Brolin as Dan White. If you’ll notice, all three of these actors have been in earlier films- Franco in “Pineapple Express,” Hirsch in “Speed Racer,” and Brolin in “W.”. “Milk” is a testament to their range, perhaps no more so than for Brolin, who has followed up a spectacular, star-making 2007 (where he starred in “Grindhouse: Planet Terror,” “American Gangster,” and “No Country for Old Men”) with further solidification of his talent playing two controversial real-life figures- our out-going President and now White, who famously claimed that an increased intake of junk food diminished his mental capacity at the time he killed both Milk and the Mayor. The infamous “Twinkie Defense” resulted in a conviction of manslaughter instead of murder, but the film- in scenes that dramatize White’s isolation and conflicted feelings- and his real-life suicide after he was released after five years hint at a more troubling mindset than junk food can explain.
I’m a sucker for underdog stories. I can’t get enough of them, and my DVD collection is loaded with them. “Wall-E,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Rudy,” “Rocky Balboa,” “Seabiscuit” and “The Karate Kid” are among my all-time faves in that department. In writing my review of “Milk,” another one came to mind, and another famous line- “They can take our lives, but they can never take…our freedom!” Film fans should know the movie that’s from. Anyone unsure whether Van Sant’s thrilling and entertaining biopic is for them should know that while the words are different, that fighting spirit is alive and well in Harvey Milk’s story. And regardless of orientation (I’m straight myself, but nonetheless sympathetic toward’s Milk’s cause), age (I was just past one when Milk was killed), or occupation (I’m in the act of discovery myself like Milk was, but his spirit is applicable to any area of passion), it’s a battle cry anyone can get behind.