Milk is a good film, but not Van Sant’s best

Posted by Greg on Dec 26, 2008 in Uncategorized

Ever since the blockbuster status of “Good Will Hunting,” Gus Van Sant has gone about making film his way and on his terms. Immediately following “Hunting,” was another commercial, big studio effort, the Sean Connery-fueled “Finding Forrester.”  Then came the disastrous remake of the Hitchcock thriller “Psycho,” which tanked at the box office. When that had only mild success, he retreated to making art-house films, devoid of big budgets and major studio backing. The first of these efforts was the incredibly quiet and sparse “Gerry,” about two men named Gerry (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who wander in the desert and avoid catastrophe. It’s a good film, if not a little overdone. Aside from Damon and Affleck, there aren’t any other actors involved, and the music relies mostly on their chatty dialogue, the use of music, lighting and their physical acting acumen. The movie, however, did little to further Van Sant’s craft at making movies. He followed that up with “Elephant,” which won the Palm D’Or at Cannes and put together a compelling, if not chilling, Columbine-inspired morality play about high school violence and gun control. Utilizing mostly amateur actors and neophytes, the film was lauded and praised by nearly everyone. He followed up the success of “Elephant,” with a fictionalized account of Kurt Cobain’s last hours. This film, “Last Days,” used much of the same formula as the last two films, but with far less dialogue and fewer grand statements. The film was in essence, completely devoid of dialogue, and left the viewer in the dark for much of the film. “Paranoid Park,” followed, a film which was already reviewed on RMP, but did little to bolster Van Sant’s credibilities as a top-notch American director. Many loved it, but there was little that impressed me. His attempt to further his artistic craft is the newly released biopic “Milk” about openly gay San Francisco City Councilman Harvey Milk and his rise to power in the gay rights movement.

More of a character study docudrama then that of a biopic, Milk begins in 1970s New York when the soon-to-be politician (a revolutionary Sean Penn) picks up a young Mississippian (an affective James Franco) named Scott Smith in a Manhattan subway station on the eve of his 40th birthday. Uninspired by his insurance career and upset that he’ll be 40 and has nothing to be proud of, he’s convinced by Smith to go west and reinvent himself. The two settle in the Castro neighborhood and open up a camera store much to the chagrin of the local business owners. Milk takes the rejection skillfully. Rather than retaliate in anger, he begins to gather a support network of pro-gay businesses and forms pro-gay alliances, which blossoms into a political career. Though defeated four consecutive times, Milk slowly begins to pick up steam and finally assembles enough clout to take on the political machines. When his relationship with fellow politician Dan White (a fist-rate Josh Brolin) turns sour, the final result is haunting and sorrowful.

But is the film really worth all the hype it’s getting? Yes, and also, no. Penn is absolutely phenomenal and consumes the role of Milk. He’s sunny and hopeful, defiant and dastardly, shrewed and sensitive, and also inexperienced and undeterred. If the film makes any grand claims, it’s about the power of choice, the triumph of the human spirit and the tireless battle for human rights and equality. More topically relevant than ever, the film does all the right things and presses all the right buttons, but it falls apart in some places. There’s little background detail on Milk prior to his subway meeting with Smith, little light shed on the character of his assasin Dan White, and even less detail into the fears and failings of Milk as a person. Why for example does his relationship with Smith sour, and why does he fall for a loose cannon Mexican (a topsy-turvy Diego Luna) like Jack? Many have hailed the film as revolutionary and speak of it with nothing but superlatives. They may be right, but there’s a few things still to be determined. For all his political savvy (he was able to recruit future president Reagan and then president Carter to back the ban on Prop 6) and the triumphant, inspiring and historical things he did, the film at times serves more as a love letter to the early gay rights movement and that of the Castro neighborhood. That combined with the film’s lack of focus on Milk as a person, and more of him as a politican brings it down to the ground somewhat. The positive comments though are not without merit. Penn is absolutely remarkable and should be a shoe-in for Best Actor. Additionally, the film is heartfelt, humorous, honest and packs a lot of punch. Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay has few holes and the intimate approach by photographer Harris Savides is worth commending. But beyond the character of Milk, nobody else is really explored at all. Brolin, Luna and Franco all put in good terms but on limited camera time. Even the always consistent Canadian actress Allison Pill is underwritten and static. One of the film’s highlights is its portrayal of politics and the strength to stand behind conviction. But for all the talent in the cast and director, “Milk” isn’t nearly as transcendent, masterful or career defining as one would have hoped for. It’s a very fine film yes, but it’s nothing compared to the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary, “The Life of Harvey Milk.” Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun, sums it up best: “It’s not a great movie, but it is an enlivening and unusual one: an effervescent political film that also packs a knockout punch.”

So, where does this put Van Sant? While not nearly as engaging or as enthralling as “Good Will Hunting,” the film certainly triumphs everything else he’s done since then. Is it a return to form? Absolutely. Career defining? Probably not. It is however an improvement. Maybe his next one will really blow the roof off.

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