Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: Milk

Abby and I caught a pre-screening of Milk, the new Gus Van Sant film that chronicles the rise and fall of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California (namely, member of the San Francisco board of City Supervisors), as well as his pivotal role in the American Gay Rights movement of the late 70's.

This is the kind of film Van Sant should direct. He has a tendency to let the camera serve as "witness", which sometimes works, but often doesn't. I remember watching Elephant and being somewhat distracted by a two minute tracking shot that followed a guy walking around a high school... not talking to anyone... just walking around. Slowly. With the exception of the opening shot, I think every single frame in that film is at eye-level, because the camera is simply and observer.

The pseudo-documentary nature of Milk lends itself more to this manner of filmmaking. Van Zant uses quite a lot of archival footage to add to the documentary feel (i.e., drive home the realism) and often as establishing shots, which procludes the need to re-create 1978 San Francisco. Although Castro Street, where most of the movie was shot, was faithfully de-aged.

The story is bookended with Harvey's relationship with his long-time lover and campaign manager Scott. The middle plays out, well, like a Wikipedia entry about Harvey Milk. I could complain about the pacing a little, it's slow and you never quite know where it's going, but the story gets told and the end result is quite moving. And in what I think is a particularly well-crafted bit of narrative, Harvey's death (this is not a spoiler, it's told to you in the first 5 minutes of the film) looms over the ending, and the tension created by the arrival of death threats and the knowledge that something tragic is about to happen keeps the last thirty minutes from getting dull.

All in all, it's a well-told tale featuring a superb cast (I smell an Oscar for Penn, and perhaps some recognition for Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black). James Franco was particularly enjoyable.

And it is unabashedly forthright with the sexuality of its characters. Don't expect to see man-sex, but there's plenty of kissing and snuggling.

Worth seeing.

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