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  Milk Mighty Real
Year: 2008
Director: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel, Brandon Boyce, Howard Rosenman, Kelvin Yu, Jeff Koons, Ted Jan Roberts, Boyd Holbrook
Genre: BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: In November of 1978, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) sat in his home and recorded a message on his tape recorder that was only to be played, he said, on the occasion of his assassination. Why would anyone want to do that to him? Yet this was a premonition of his impending death, as Milk had become one of the most vocal gay rights campaigners in the United States at that time, and all thanks to his groundbreaking position in public office as a Supervisor of the city of San Francisco, which he had fought hard to win, and mainly on a single issue: that homosexuals had as much right as any to equality in his country.

You can tell from that Milk, the film, was no misty-eyed, soft-pedalling depiction of an important political figure, so he doesn't get a girlfriend or anything like that, but it was director Gus Van Sant's labour of love to make this biopic, and by the twenty-first century he managed to do so, creating a work that joined a multitude of films, television drama and series which took real life people and showed them as part of a (usually) documentary-style portrait. For a culture which was obsessed with looking back and contemplating how we got here from there, Van Sant's efforts here fit very snugly into that genre.

So much so that Penn won the Best Leading Actor for his role at the following Academy Awards, beating Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler, much to many people's chagrin for whom the novelty of seeing Rourke win such a prestigious reward would have been the icing on the comeback cake for a cult star. But if they'd taken the time to judge Penn on his own merits, they'd see it was another example of his devotion to his craft, and in that dedication he fully deserved to garner such plaudits as he lost himself in the role. Milk was no conventional tough guy which the star had made his name with over the years, but curiously that was how Penn saw him.

Because the real Harvey Milk was a genuine fighter, a crusader for civil rights at a time when all the good work that had occurred in the United States to create a fair and reasonable balance between gay and straight citizens was looking to be under threat. Van Sant was not many people's idea of a hardline political filmmaker, but with this, more celebration of Milk's life than elegy at his death, he nailed his colours to the mast from the outset as no sooner have we seen the news footage of the announcement of Milk's murder (and the murder of Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber)) than we see him picking up the love of his life, Scotty Smith (James Franco) less than ten years before.

Not only that, but Penn and Franco kissed long and hard and often - Van Sant wasn't going to show them having sex, but he made no bones about the fact of his characters' sexual orientation, and this lack of mealy-mouthed pussyfooting around the subject was refreshing, giving Van Sant one of his most confident productions. So if this social commentary was not something he had tried too often, it definitely suited him as he played up the sense of outrage that such divisive figures as Anita Bryant (seen solely in archive footage) and Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) brought out in many champions of free speech and civil liberties when they tried to take back the progress that had been made. As bigotry had not gone away, this was as much a call to the world to take seriously the threat on freedom for all, not simply the gay community, that was occurring in contemporary times, as it was a depiction of Milk's life, and in truth the personal stuff here did seem pretty soapy, but seen in conjunction with Rob Epstein's absorbing documentary The Times of Harvey Milk there was a valuable lesson of tolerance in both. Music by Danny Elfman.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Gus Van Sant  (1952 - )

Vaguely arty American director whose films rarely seem quite as satisfying as they should. Drugstore Cowboy remains his best effort, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues undoubtedly his worst. My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Columbine shootings-based Elephant and Kurt Cobain-inspired Last Days have their fans, and Good Will Hunting was a big success, but the scene-for-scene Psycho remake must be his oddest venture. After a decade of experimentation, including desert trek oddity Gerry, he returned to the mainstream in 2008 with the award-winning biopic Milk then reverted to smaller projects once more, including biopic Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.

 
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