Oscar Vault Monday – Milk, 2008 (dir. Gus Van Sant)

I don’t even know where to begin with this movie. I have so many feelings about it. And there is so much to say. There’s the actual history on which it is based. There’s the amazing ensemble cast, including Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning turn. There’s Dustin Lance Black’s amazing script, which also won an Oscar. But then there’s this anger I get when I watch it because I think about the fall of 2008. This film was released on November 26th, a few weeks after the 2008 election, which in California included the passage of Prop 8. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the film had been released earlier. Would it have had an impact? I just wish the studio had thought to try. When it did get released it played at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for quite a while. That is where I first saw it (I’d just moved earlier in 2008 from Berkeley to San Francisco) and I’ve got to say it just made the whole election all the more bittersweet. Upon several revisits to this film I think this is the superior film from 2008 and it should have gone home with the big prize. But I can see why it didn’t. It’s a film about a very polarizing issue and Slumdog Millionaire was (marketed as) a feel-good film. In the long run I think Milk will be the film people will return to time and again. Milk was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two: Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Supporting Actor Josh Brolin,  Best Actor Sean Penn (won), Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader and winner Slumdog Millionaire.

I wanted to talk about a few of the technical aspects of the film that I really love before I go into the performances.

The first thing I really loved about the film was how great the historical costuming was. Yes it was based in the 1970s and that doesn’t really feel like it’s “historical,” but the 70s ended thirty some years ago. That’s more time than you’d think, especially when it comes to fashion. Danny Glicker’s costumes lost to the more showy costumes for The Duchess, but I’m glad they were at least nominated.

I also loved Danny Elfman’s score (which lost to A. R. Rahman’s score for Slumdog Millionaire). While Elfman is more known for his collaborative work with Tim Burton, he’s also done several films with Gus Van Sant (including 1997 Best Picture nominee Good Will Hunting).

I also really love the use of actual historical footage of people like Anita Bryant. I remember hearing one review that said something like the footage let her paint herself as a villain. Those were her words, spoken by her. It’s just so awful. But it’s also important to remember what people were really like and the views they held. Especially when you look at the country as it is today; many people still hold those same views.

Lastly, I just really love the phone montage scene. Who says a straight up biopic can’t have a little style? Mixing touches like this and the historical footage is part of what raises this film above your run of the mill biopic. This is the kind of touch you expect from a director like Van Sant.

Where do I even begin with Sean Penn’s performance? I’ve heard from several people who usually think that Penn is “a bit much” that he was spot on in this performance, everything he did was perfect. I have to agree. At the time, and still today to some extent, I was torn between this performance and Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler. I still kind of wish they had tied for Best Actor. But that’s neither here nor there. Penn transforms into Harvey Milk, acting from every inch of his body. He’s funny and he’s charming and he’s tragic and he’s passionate; getting to play such a tremendous man must have been an actor’s dream. I have to digress again from the performance to mention something the character (and most likely the real Harvey Milk) says during the film. Towards the end of the film, when they’re fighting the passing of Prop 6 (also known as the Briggs initiative) he says something like “we won’t let them legislate bigotry in this state.” Back in 1978 Prop 6 was defeated; in 2008 Prop 8 was not and bigotry was legislated by this state. What was the difference? I guess it’s because of the marriage issue and how “sacred” it is compared to teaching or housing rights or everything else. I won’t get into what I think about that because this is a film blog, not a political blog. What I will say is that line is particularly bittersweet because of the 2008 election and maybe it’s only that way because I lived in California during that election (my whole life, actually). This goes to the subjectivity of the film medium and how no one can ever see the same film because everyone is coming at a film with their own perspective and life experiences. If I didn’t already believe that, my relationship with Milk would be enough to convince me.

James Franco gives a superb and subdued performance as Milk’s friend and lover Scott Smith, who leaves New York City with Milk for San Francisco as the film begins. I definitely think this is one of Franco’s finest performances. He’s great at comedy (he was actually nominated for a Golden Globe this same year for his work on The Pineapple Express and I remember him saying something about how odd he felt being recognized for his work in that film when he was also in a film like Milk), but he’s capable of such an astonishing range of emotions. I think he is one of those actors who really benefits from a great director and a great script. He rises to that greatness.

There was much speculation as to who would receive the Best Supporting Actor nomination from this ensemble, as there were so many deserving performances featured in the film. The answer was Josh Brolin as the film’s “villain” Dan White. Brolin is magnificent in this role, forcing the viewers to feel just a smidgen of empathy for the character. When you first see him he’s awkward and eager to please, but dubious of the friendship Milk is offering. At one point Milk says he thinks White is, “one of us,” but so deep in the closet he lives his whole life in fear. I’m not sure how much of that is true, but it sure seems that’s how Brolin played the role. As the film progresses we see White as he breaks down, starting with him losing his temper in public to being drunk in public, and eventually losing his job and his family. Just before the final denouement of the film we get this wonderful juxtaposition of scenes. Milk has just come home from the opera and he is on the phone with Scott, supposedly they’ve been talking all night and dawn is beginning to break. This is mixed with scenes of White, wearing nothing but his underwear, curled up on his couch, clearly in a very bad space in his life. He has hit rock bottom. We all know where it goes from there.

Emile Hirsch gives a fabulous performance as a young Cleve Jones, who later in life would found the NAMES  Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Hirsch is sassy and passionate and eager, helping Milk with rallies and the like throughout his last campaign and time in office. I think Hirsch is a wonderful actor, and was surprised a year earlier when he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor for his impressive turn in the Sean Penn directed biopic Into The Wild. Hopefully we’ll see more from him in the coming years.

Diego Luna is great as one of Milk’s lovers named Jack. He’s only in a the film for about thirty minutes or so, but all of them are heartbreaking. He’s full of innocence and wonder, but it’s all a defense mechanism to help him cope with the deep scars of his life when he first came out, how his parents acted, etc. Jack is fragile and Milk sees that and tries his best to help him. I guess you could make a case that the addition of this character is a bit heavy-handed, but I would argue Jack is an important character. Not everyone in the gay community has the support of their family and/or the strength to cope with life once they’ve been ostracized. Jack is a reminder that the fight for acceptance can come at a high cost.

Which brings me to Joseph Cross, who plays Dick Pabich. Throughout most of the film Dick is comfortable in his own skin and among his contemporaries. But about halfway or so through the film, during the big fight to defeat Prop 6, Milk decides that everyone must come out to everyone in their lives because, “they vote for us 2-to-1 if they know just one of us.” Dick admits that he has not come out to his parents. He goes from this confident, jovial man to someone who is full of deep-rooted fears, of possibly being rejected or hurting his family or losing them for good. It’s a tremendous scene, even if it only last about a minute.

Alison Pill plays pretty much the only woman in the film, a “tough dyke” who takes over Milk’s fourth political campaign, helping him to finally get elected. Pill, who currently can be seen in Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, is a fantastic actress and look forward to her coming projects.

Lastly, I wanted to talk about Victor Garber, who isn’t really given much to do as Mayor George Moscone. I just really love Victor Garber (everyone go watch the scene in Titanic where he sets the clock on the ship to match his pocketwatch and then sob, okay?!)

To end this post, I just want to leave you with what is arguably Harvey Milk’s most famous speech. You gotta give hope.

This was written in conjunction with Garbo Laughs’ Queer Blogathon; be sure to check out the rest of the participating blogs. If you’re interested in owning this film you can do so here at our Oscar Vault Monday shop.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on June 27, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Amazing film, lovely review. Welldone.

  2. This is a great review, and I didn’t mind one bit that you let your personal feelings show through. I too was living in California during the passing of Prop 8 (still live there now) and was living specifically in the Bay Area at that time. I remember watching Milk on DVD in my apartment across the Bay from SF and feeling so sick and sad even though it’s such a hopeful film. I think the film really brought Harvey Milk to life, and I still can’t drive by San Francisco City Hall without thinking of it. Thank you for your excellent contribution to the blogathon.

  3. I really liked this post. I too, wonder if the release date of this film could have impacted the ’08 election.
    I’m a big fan of your blog, by the way. And also a movie lover, though I haven’t seen nearly as many films as you. We should talk and compare notes about stuff if you want.(:

  4. I have to admit, I cried during my second viewing of the film. I don’t know why it got me the second time… the first time I thought Milk was more like a political film.

  5. Nice review – extermely nice review. You mentioned the character of Jack – that maybe it was heavy-handed to have a character afraid to come out to his family. I think it was extremely important to point out that even now not all people have the support of their families when they come out. A young man here in this town killed himself in 2008 after he came out because of the reaction of his family.

    This film was painful to watch after the election. I don’t know if an earlier release would have made a difference. I don’t know if the studio weighed Oscar November against defeating prop 8. Maybe they were like me and thought it wouldn’t pass. I’m still shocked that it did.

    Films like this are important to help us remember how it was and point out how it still is. We must never give up this fight or be afraid to say what we think when bigotry is right in front of us.

    Good job.

  1. Pingback: QUEER FILM BLOGATHON « Garbo Laughs

  2. Pingback: Oscar Vault Monday – Good Will Hunting, 1997 (dir. Gus Van Sant) « the diary of a film history fanatic

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