Sunday, December 28, 2008


Milk is a newish biographical film directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant) about the life of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. Spoiler Alert: don't read on if you don't want to know what happens in this film. This movie was a pretty massive let down for me. Here's why.

But first, the good.  The acting was absolutely top notch. As most reviews have said, Sean Penn gives perhaps his greatest performance yet. Besides just nailing the mannerisms of the real-life protagonist, the way Philip Seymour Hoffman did in Capote, the most emotional scenes in the film are lifted to new heights because of his acting. The love he shows for Scott early in their relationship, the anguish in his cry when he finds Jack's strung up body, and that final and perfectly helpless "no" muttered as his hand is trivially waved in front of Dan White's gun--all of these were tremendous.

The supporting actors were equally excellent. I was most impressed with James Franco who, up until now, I had only seen play the horrendous role of Peter Parker's roommate. Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch were also very good. Best was Denis O'Hare in the role of Senator Briggs who absolutely excelled for the second time this season as an antagonist (also wonderful as the mad "doctor" in

On acting alone, I'd give
Milk an A.

Unfortunately, there were so many points in this film when the direction and editing really hindered the storytelling. On the whole, I felt the movie moved much too quickly in the first half, yet often seemed to be too slow in making any real headway plot-wise. I was bothered by the fact that the first impression we are given of Milk in the "present" is picking up a stranger in a subway stairwell. Next thing, they're in California and he's got a camera shop. Next thing, he's running for office. Viewers are more or less asked to sit through a series of bullet points.  Things move much too fast, yet nothing seems to really happen; oh, he lost again?--darn. Thanks Gus Van Sant for the character montage to catch us up: "There was Ronnie J. the hip Asian, John Stine the smart guy, and of course Mark T." 30 minutes later, John pops up with a map of San Fran and his first speaking lines, and I'm thinking, "Who the hell is this guy?" It's just sloppy character development and storytelling.

There are too many examples of careless editing to remember them all. At one point, I turned to my girlfriend to see if she too saw a boom mic bob below the screen's top edge (she did). More frustrating, however, was the number of times a seemingly random shot, or series of shots, was sporadically placed between scenes with no regard for its importance to the story.  One example finds the young Cleve Jones doing sit-ups in the Castro Camera storefront window; there is absolutely no point to this five second interlude, but we shot it, so we might as well use it... tsk tsk.

The movie's biggest failure is that despite its wonderful performances, there are very rarely opportunities to be moved. I felt very little while watching this film, perhaps only upon viewing the death's of Milk and his lover Jack. Much of this has to do with directorial choices. For instance, when Jones mobilizes thousands via telephone calls, I did not feel the excitement or the build that I could have.  Instead, Van Sant decides to amateurize the film with a downright stupid split-screen montage of men calling men calling men. It looks like the Village People doing the Brady Bunch. Similarly, when Milk finally wins in his third election attempt, it's as simple as that: he wins. Sure, there's a rousing party in the streets, but practically no momentum is built up to the victory. It just kind of happens, again, giving viewers no opportunity to be moved. One final example would be the movie's apparent climax, the defeat of Prop 8, whose story is told by pans across a cheap green/red color chart of the state of California. Again, momentum of Prop 8 failing is crushed by a cheesy directorial choice.

There are more examples. The script foreshadows Milk's death three times in the first five minutes, first by depicting Milk making a recording in case of his assassination, then by showing actual footage from the 1978 murder, and finally with Milk's "if I make it to 50" line in bed with Scott. Yet for some reason, we are asked to re-watch this final scene in bed at the end of the movie. It's borderline insulting; like, "Hey, see what we did here with this bit of foreshadowing??? Pretty smart, huh?!"

I should mention that the second example--real footage being spliced into the film--is one of Van Sant's finest artistic directions to date. In particular, the decision to use only original footage of Anita Bryant instead of having an actor play her role was smart and worked very well. I loved how seamlessly actual news reports, speeches, and videos from the 70s were mixed into the movie.

At the end of the day, the story wasn't told as well as it should have been by the men and women behind the camera, not in front of it. For that reason, I was disappointed, I was left uninspired, and I believe some rather fine acting was squandered.

Watch the trailer:

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