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Penn, Brolin Make “Milk” Go


Two nights ago, I was fortunate enough to see an early screening of the Harvey Milk bio-pic, “Milk”. Movies like this one tend to be formulaic and episodic, which is the nature of real life. Unfortunately, this potentially makes them boring and can also make them seem a bit overrated (“Ray”!). When I watch a movie like this one, it is all about the performances since Wikipedia can tell you all you need to know about a person, like Harvey Milk. Fortunately, the performances keep this movie afloat as it plows through the political career of Harvey Milk.

Much is being made of Sean Penn’s performance and the praise is well-deserved. Normally, I think that Penn is a bit of an over-actor. There was nothing about his Best Actor-winning performance in “Mystic River” that really blew me away and his more understated role in “21 Grams” is much, much better.

One would assume that a gay rights activist with a big personality like Milk would be a license to over-act for Penn. However, he takes the role and embraces it with an unexpected amount of humor and class. His performance is so convincing that I was fairly sold on all of the things that Harvey Milk was fighting for…almost.

This is just a movie and I’m not very interested in arguing the politics of it. However, the main portion of the film is devoted to the massive Christian attempt to essentially take away the civil rights of gay people. As a Christian, this is an embarrassment and those responsible should be ashamed of themselves. The fact that only 30 years ago, there was a governmental movement that was ready to treat a group of human beings as second class citizens just based on a private matter is ridiculous and goes against everything that a true, conservative person believes.

Here is where I may get myself in trouble…I have a lot of problems with the way Milk and his people went about getting change. When a massive group of people chants “Civil change or Civil War!“, I have a problem with it. This is the type of thing that scares people and could actually promote violence. Any group that says such things is going to scare more people than change their opinions. In fact, it may deepen their hatred. Also, there isn’t anything wrong with a demonstration and it’s our right to do so as Americans, but a demonstration filled with half-naked people in the street? I doubt that is what the writers of the Constitution, which Harvey Milk vehemently defended, had in mind.

“Milk” also showed how gay men go about hooking up with other gay men, which they did by trolling specific areas of certain cities. I understand that at the time, it was not acceptable behavior and these men had to hide from the general public. However, it does not change the fact that they were extremely irresponsible. In fact, upon meeting his long-term partner Scott Smith (James Franco), Harvey Milk mentions that he will show him “all the best spots in New York”. This movie did not make any mention of the negative impact this behavior has on society or the fact that it again gives the prejudiced more fuel for their fire. This is an issue that lives on today, as evidenced by the case surrounding Senator Larry Craig.

This is a movie that really gets some great performances out of people. First and foremost, Josh Brolin knocks it out of the park as Dan White, the man who eventually murders Harvey Milk. In fact, the finest scene of the movie features a drunken White confronting Harvey, essentially asking him “Why aren’t we friends?” Brolin plays White as a regular man who strongly believes his religious convictions, who just may have had some dark, deep secret (Gay? Alcoholism?) that he couldn’t battle.

James Franco is very good as Scott Smith and it’s easily the best acting he has every done. Unfortunately, I found Emile Hirsch’s Cleve Jones to be annoying and he was constantly angry. Diego Luna’s portrayal of Harvey’s partner Jack was a bit strange and we never really knew anything about him. This made a moment in their life together, while incredibly tragic and sad (mostly due to Penn’s understated performance) not as poignant as it should have been.

“Milk” is an exceptional bio-pic that is filled with history. My main problem with it is that we really don’t learn anything about Harvey Milk, the man. Sure, he was a major player in the beginning of the gay rights movement, but we didn’t learn anything about his actual private life. Instead, this movie really focuses on the problems that all gay people were having in the 1970s and 1980s and what Harvey Milk did to help them gain acceptance.

This movie makes political sense in today’s world. Obviously, many people are looking for change in the way our country does things. Not everyone will agree with every change that is made or proposed, but hopefully, thanks to people like Harvey Milk, we can at least talk to each other and be willing to understand a differing opinion. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but “Milk” is a dramatic movie that is meant to challenge the viewer.

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  1. November 20, 2008 at 12:27 PM

    You are so lucky…great review. I hate living in South Africa sometimes…sigh.

  2. November 20, 2008 at 9:06 PM

    Nicely done, great review.

    Did you hear about the 3 ABC shows that were canceled (Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone & Dirty Sexy Money)? 😦

  3. Samantha
    November 26, 2008 at 6:07 PM

    I love that you started out by saying, “I’m not very interested in arguing the politics of it…” and then proceeded to do exactly that.
    However, I agree with nearly everything you said about the movie itself, so cheers.

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