Penn serves warm ‘Milk’

milkI’m not sure what is more sad: politician Harvey Milk’s life being cut short by an assassin’s bullett, or the recent passing of the California’s reprehensible Prop 8 Bill, making it seem this man’s death may have been in vain.

Sean Penn inhabits the lead role, and through him we can see just how magnetic a man the San Francisco candidate was and how easy it must have been to warm to his cause.

But Penn does not lionize the man, unafraid to show his fears, doubts and flirtation with hubris as his voice begins to reverberate across the state and the nation. To see Penn, who often appears pensive and prickly on talk shows and in public of late, return to the type of performance that is sweet, sensitive and thoroughly endearing is rewarding enough. But he is surrounded by thoughtful, passionate performers who all seemed so moved by Milk’s legacy, they were determined to do him justice.

Milk arrives in San Fran at the start of the swingin’ 70s, frustrated and ready to start his life anew as he approaches his 40th birthday.

It is there he bumps into his partner Scott Smith (played by James Franco), and they embark on their journey from small camera shop owners to activist organizers helping to reshape the cultural landscape of California.

Where ‘Milk’ separates itself from other gay-themed mainstream films is that it presents its characters as peers. Films like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Jeffrey’ were more about allowing the lifestyle to exist in its own little vacuum, if not truly accepting these individuals as equals in every sense of the word.

It’s the difference between accpeting a gay person and accepting a person who happens to be gay.

Director Gus Van Sandt does this by presenting us with the leads’ sexuality in the first few minutes of the film. Penn and Franco tango in an intimate encounter signifying the same electricity all relationships share in the first stage.

Soon after, it settles into the same banality and common day-to-day exchanges all couples shift into, except theirs is one that faces constant tumult outside their own happy domicile – fear, anger and hate await them at every public demonstration of their affection toward one another.

It’s as if to say to skeptical, straight audience members, “see, this lifestyle you so fear can be just as mundane as yours, but contains no less love within it.”

I, personally respected ‘Brokeback’ as a political statement more than a film. I felt it was oftentimes dramatically inert, but I admired what it set out to accomplish.

With ‘Milk’ and its engaging cast of underdogs, there’s little downtime; in fact, there’s always an underlying sense of urgency as they confront their fair share of injustices that meet their everyday existence, from indifferent police to angered citizens to downright spiteful politicians.

Josh Brolin continues his streak as the tortured fellow politician Dan White, who admires Milk’s appeal as much as he despises his orientation. He is one of the film’s few flaws, as descends into his own hell, we wish we were afforded mere glimpses into his life.

The other weak link is Milk’s partner Jack Lira (played by Diego Luna) following a breakup with Scott. We understand he’s a mess, but it remains unclear as to why Milk stays with this obvious basket case after repeated signs of an impending ugly meltdown.

Van Sandt seamlessly blends archival news footage of the era with his own , drained of just enough color to feel era-specific. This comes in handy when he includes clips of the self-righteous Anita Bryant sermonizing about Milk’s deviant behavior.

Bryant looms heavily like a fog of hate and intolerance, donned in a frilly blouse and sensible pumps, and no actress is needed to shed further light on her moralistic monologues. Her damnation of gays over Proposition 6 ( which would allow the firing of teachers over sexual orientation ) is icily scary.

What was equally surprising was the film’s minimalist, sweeping score by Danny Elfman, which enhances the picture without once intruding and making it seem melodramatic.

‘Milk’ does feel as though it sometimes smooths over the politician’s rougher edges, yet it never feels less than authentic, courtesy of Penn’s embrace of his character.

The only shame of ‘Milk’ is that its release is a few weeks too late to perhaps influence a recent stripping of civil rights. It would have made ‘Milk’s’ ending more stirring and just.

Now, it’s just heartbreakingly sad.

~ by usesoapfilm on December 15, 2008.

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