Milk – Blu-ray Review
By Frankie Dees Mar 9, 2009, 13:39 GMT
Follows gay-rights activist Harvey Milk’s political rise as the first openly gay man elected to office, in 1977, to the time he was shot to death (along with Mayor George Moscone) by city supervisor Dan White. ...more
'Milk' tells the fervent, tender, and fierce story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the U.S. The film is driven by yet another amazing performance from Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant's strongest directing work in years.
I'm the first to admit that I've never been a big fan of biopics as a genre; despite usually stand-out performances from the likes of the actor doing the mimic from Jamie Foxx in 'Ray' and Joaquin Phoenix in 'Walk Hard' to Josh Brolin in 'W.', there's always seems to be a mental check-off list playing out in my head. Childhood tragedy? Check. Some sort of substance abuse? Check. A significant personal goal met? Check.
And no matter how good the central performance is, the narrative is always constricted to various perceptions and memories. Not falling into these biopic pitfalls is what makes Dustin Lance Black's Academy Award-winning script so refreshing.
We don't have to suffer Harvey Milk's closeted early life as an insurance salesman pretending to be what he's not. We pick up with Harvey on his 40th birthday when he meets the love of his life, Scott Smith (a well-cast James Franco).
The relationship spurs his move from New York to San Francisco to join in on the gay movement happening there at the time. Opening up a small camera store in the famous Castro district, the store eventually becomes a gathering point for young gays anxious to discuss topics and issues with their own.
This eventually leads to Harvey Milk's continued, increasing interest in politics, mostly to provide a voice for the "Us's" out there and protect where the conservative police department won't. He ran for the board of supervisors three times, each time gaining more and more votes, until finally in 1977, he wrote history and won.
Never missing a chance to make his voice heard when pushing for ordinances that would support minority rights, he eventually became a target from Christian activists scared of having the sacred family unit disgraced (I never understood this argument as how do having civil rights stripped away stop people from being gay?).
His story came to a tragic end via his fateful relationship with fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a posterboy for the clean-cut Catholic family, who seemed to harbor very conflicted feelings about Milk.
They never could come to terms on helping each other out and White struggled with his own personal demons as well as resenting Milk for securing the Mayor of SF as an ally. White quietly walked into the Mayor’s office, assassinated him and then proceeded straight to his own office where he invited Milk to his death.
Even for those unfamiliar with the story, don't worry about that being a spoiler, as newsreel footage presents this info in the opening minutes of the film with a framing device of Milk taking into a recorder in 1977 after being elected to office recounting his comparatively short rise to power and who even predicted his own assassination.
Gus Van Sant, who is an extremely fickle filmmaker can astound in both defiantly anti-commercial films i.e. 'Drugstore Cowboy', and commercial i.e. 'Good Will Hunting' but crash and burn i.e. 'Gerry' and that strange 'Psycho' remake with equal aplomb.
With 'Milk', he seems more confident than over, integrating vintage and archival newsreel footage with contemp on-location footage to paint a dizzying real-life evocation of time and place. With this expert facade so fully realized, Van Sant fills it with an established, dedicated cast that really cements the story being told.
Penn won his second Oscar for Harvey and while I was rooting for Rourke at the time, having not seen 'Milk', I now feel the Academy chose the right man despite loving 'The Wrestler'.
Is there another performer who can bring such depth to such disparate roles as 'Dead Man Walking', 'Mystic River' and 'Milk'? I can't picture more different roles than Penn in 'Mystic River' and Penn in 'Milk' but Penn is a marvel here, showing off the vocal tics and mannerisms with a flawless ease.
The film opening sequences start off with Milk becoming comfortable in his homosexual skin and his meet cute with Franco's Scott Smith and the thesping and camera isn't shy to pull in on this immediate attraction. No matter the sexual preference - rather this scene becomes uncomfortable or not - no one can deny the dedication of the thesping on display here.
Emile Hirsh and Diego Luna also do great supporting work as one of Milk's closest activists and as a desperate lover, respectively with Josh Brolin's nominated Supporting Actor getting the Silver for injecting an enormous amount of conflict and nuance into a character that doesn't quite get the screen time to be as fully fleshed out as it needs to be.
Van Sant managed to make a highly enjoyable, still artistic, film about a great historical figure that not many people know about; the pic's greatest accomplishment might just be to continue to spread his message.
'Milk' is a toughie to judge in high-def as it features an amalgam of newsreel footage, stills and contemp photography meant to gel with the whole seventies aesthetic. The majority of the film looks sufficient with a slight bit of grain but color is intentionally muted and washed out so don't expect any visual fireworks.
A DTS-HD Master Aud track is provided and does a good job presenting clear dialogue and a clean Danny Elfman score.
There's not much here in special features which is surprising as Universal is usually pretty good in this department. This seemed like a film that could have easily taken advantage of their U-Control feature with all the real-life facts and footage that could have been shown.
Well, what we do get is 'Hollywood Comes to San Francisco' a 14-minute making-of with the expected interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, 'Remember Harvey', 13-minutes of interviews with the real-life people that occupied Milk's inner circle; some good stuff here but far too short. 'Marching for Equality' is a quick look at the logistics of filming the demonstration sequences. And that's it. A commentary seems sorely missed here too.
Despite some weak supplements, this Blu-ray is still the best way to check out this great, well-crafted, magnificently-acted pic about a man whose legacy certainly deserves to be better known.
Sometimes you just have to look past the politics and personal beliefs to see the humanity which can be described of anybody, regardless of party and orientation, and this film goes to great lengths to portray that – highly recommended.