Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant)

Very enticing trailers have been advertising this film “from the director of Good Will Hunting,” and I have been anxiously looking forward to it and hoping that’s not true. The visionary director of Paranoid Park or My Own Private Idaho would be ideal, but as long as we didn’t get the bored, paycheck-cashing director of Finding Forrester, I was willing to settle for the director of Good Will Hunting, a movie with good story and acting but no artistic merit that I can recall. Fortunately, he injects more ambition into the mix for Milk, enough to make it a pretty damned good movie… for a bio-pic.

Dustin Black, staff writer on Katy’s Big Love, does a good job, don’t get me wrong, but everyone seems pretty well simplified. There’s only time to hit all the major points of Milk’s political career – his decision to take charge of his life, his camera shop, first boyfriend, bunch of failed campaigns, main collaborators, community-building, exercise of political power, second boyfriend, election as supervisor, passing of anti-discrimination bill, boyfriend’s suicide, assassination. That’s a lot to cover in two hours. Movie covers it all well, neatly packages Milk’s life into an oscar-ready event.

J. Rosenbaum, out of context: “Milk addresses a mindset I would associate with campaign agitprop mode, a mindset that forsakes nuanced and complex analysis for the sake of immediate uplift.” But oh, the uplift! D. Ehrenstein examines the uplift: “As someone who has spent the better part of his life involved in gay activism, to say that I found Milk moving is an understatement. Genuinely political Hollywood films are rare; gay-activist Hollywood films are nonexistent. Milk is both. It’s also a film whose emotions and ideas speak directly to every audience, regardless of political commitment or sexual orientation.” Moving is right – I felt moved. Movie moved Katy in another direction, unaccountably making her depressed. So she wasn’t as pleased as I was, but I didn’t love Slumlord Millionaire as much as she, so now we’re even.

– Mr. Milk: Sean Penn, a favorite target of Bloom County in the 80’s, first I’ve seen of his acting since Mystic River, justifiably acclaimed.
– Enthusiastic campaign kid: Emile Hirsch of Into The Wild. He was mostly alone in that one so I didn’t realize he’s the size of a hobbit.
– Milk’s low-key first boyfriend: Spider-Man bad-guy James Franco
– High-drama Boyfriend #2: Diego Luna, star of Criminal and Y Tu Mama Tambien, also appeared with Penn in another gay biopic, Before Night Falls.
– Milk’s Christian coworker and eventual killer: Josh Brolin of No Country.
– The Mayor of Town: Victor Garber (whatshername’s dad in Alias).
– The Only Woman In The Movie: campaign manager Alison Pill was in Dan In Real Life (which I keep thinking I’ve seen, but no, that was Lars and the Real Girl)

Music by Danny Elfman doesn’t draw attention to itself. Cinematography by Harris Savides (Zodiac, Elephant) does – it’s lovely.