My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.

23 December, 2008

Gus Van Sant is peculiar to me. On the one hand, you have polarizing arthouse pictures like Elephant and Last Days, but on the other hand you have these rather bland and conventional melodramas like Good Will Hunting and now Milk. None of these films are bad in any way — Well, Last Days is shit. — but I’m waiting for the day when Van Sant moves away from these extremes and makes a film that combines the best elements of these styles.

Milk works primarily because the story of its subject is as uplifting and inspiring as any story ever told. You would have to be an outright hack to screw it up. For the most part, Van Sant takes the safest route available by simply turning the camera on, pointing it at his actors, and stays the hell away. I say “for the most part” because he does lapse into sentimentality from time to time which changes the film from an ordinary biopic to an annoying one. Milk’s assassination switches into slow-motion halfway through, and Van Sant can’t resist flashing back to a moment of foreshadowing in the first 10 minutes. I could ignore these flaws more easily were it not for Danny Elfman’s shameless score, which as Jim Jarmusch would say, tells the audience exactly how to feel at every given moment. The story is powerful enough without the incessant spoon-feeding. It is patronizing and does nothing but take me out of the story.

If there is any reason to spend a ticket on Milk, it’s the career-best performances by Sean Penn and Josh Brolin. Penn has a severe case of what I call the Rod Steiger Syndrome. In his 50 years of overacting, Steiger delivered a small handful of  adequate performances (On the Waterfront, In the Heat of the Night, and Duck You Sucker leap to mind.), but if you have only seen the highlights, you won’t realize just how bad he was until you see him at his absolute worst, like his laugh-a-minute performance in The Amityville Horror, and then the flaws start to show in his best work. While Penn is leagues better than Steiger, it’s after seeing him in dreck like The Game that made me discover just how hammy and self-indulgent he can be in films like Mystic River and Dead Man Walking.

But Harvey Milk was not self-indulgent. Hammy, maybe. Therefore Penn for once is light-hearted and rather endearing. I haven’t enjoyed watching him work this much since Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. I actually cared about this character in a way that I don’t normally care about his torture victims. In short: This is his best performance to date.

Meanwhile, Josh Brolin is becoming one of my favorite actors. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman, he has the uncanny ability to transform into his characters without extreme physical changes (No disrespect to Day-Lewis or De Niro.) He does this by using his characters as an extension of himself. This makes for truly honest acting, and I can’t find a single recognizble trace between Llewelyn Moss, George W. Bush and Dan White.

Dan White’s portrayal is perhaps the highlight of the film, and one must commend writer Dustin Lance Black for not writing the man off as a homophobic psycho killer. Milk himself has compassion for White, and despite his heinous actions, so do I. This wouldn’t be possible were it not for Brolin’s portrayal and Black’s writing. Lesser talents would have turned this fascinating character into a cardboard cut-out (Although the same cannot be said for Mayor Moscone whose actions and assassination by White are a mere footnote in Milk’s story. Once again.)

I still can’t work out why Milk is being so heavily praised but I’d hate to be cynical and blame it all on Proposition 8. I read somewhere that the film was a “great example of cinema verite.” Nonsense. Bicycle Thieves is cinema verite. Milk is an Oscar-bait biopic. But a decent one.

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