Saturday, January 24, 2009


"My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you."-Harvey Milk(Sean Penn)

When we look back years from now, one of the defining moments in our history will involve the rise to power of a politician, one who comes from an oppressed minority to rise to power in government by the promises of hope and change.
His name is Harvey Milk.
And though the united states voting Obama in as president really washes away the sin and racial bigotry of our ancestors, what Harvey Milk did is much more impressive. Instead of washing away our sins, our guilt, he made us realise we were committing a sin we didn't know we had committed. And that's what makes his story so uplifting, so inspiring, so cinematic.
I'm sorry did I say cinematic? I meant Van-santamatic. Because I think more than any other Director working today, Van Sant is the one who is breaking the rules of cinema. In a movie like Paranoid Park (Which is the only experimental Van Sant film I have seen, I've also seen Good Will Hunting) There really is one big moment in the entire movie, which is of course, the moment that drives the entire plot, the accident at the train yard. And the film takes an hour to finally get there. This is the sort of experimentation that I feel is missing in Hollywood today.
However let's get one thing straight, Milk isn't Paranoid Park. The Story Van Sant is telling here is very straight forward, and yet unconventional in it's own right. It wouldn't be to wrong to describe it as an easy introduction to the experimental works of Van Sant, but that would make the film sound boring in comparison, but really this movie is so much more.
The script is simple. We open on Milk, showing him recording something to be played at his funeral in the event he is assassinated (Ominously setting up his murder at the hands of Dan White, something that Van Sant loves to do). We then track Harvey from the first time he meets Gay lover Scott Smith(James Franco) in a train station in New York on Milk's 40th birthday. We go back to his apartment where Scott tells him he should move away and try to do some thing with his life, and Milk predicts he wont live to see 50 (Milk died at 48). But unlike Paranoid Park, Milk has to be simple, Van Sant can play with the storytelling in Paranoid Park because nothing happens in that movie. Here, however, Milk's story is so sprawling and so unknown by the general public that Van Sant has to play it straight, screenplay wise.
But it's the cinematography that Van Sant utilises that is where the film really gets the experimental feel that permeates his other films. Harry Savides, coming off his success of shooting San Francisco An example of this is when Dan White goes to meet Mayor Moscone. The camera switches between him sitting down and Moscone's secretary in quick pans. When he gets up, the camera decides not to get up with him but to watch his torso enter into Mayor Moscone's office. There's also the long shots, like the shot where Milk and Scott Smith are "greeted" by straight man living in the Castro district, which is one shot form the inside of Castro camera, Milk's early store in San Francisco.
Sean Penn is magnificent in this movie. Having seen The Assassination of Richard Nixon recently and then seeing this, I am now convinced that Sean Penn can play more than just the world-weary characters(thin red line, 21 grams). But he was expected to be amazing, as he always is, so the real surprise here is Josh Brolin. He plays Dan White as a man who starts out as a normal and good moralled republican who blames Harvey Milk for the fact that he can't get his bills passed in congress. Of course anyone who knows the story of Milk knows what a big part Dan White plays in the story of Milk and Brolin plays him to the nines. The supporting cast is good (Hirsch, Luna, and Franco in a strange follow-up to Pineapple Express) with a stand out turn from Jessica Pill as the campaign manager.
But this movie is worth seeing for the story of Harvey Milk. It's a fascinating story about hope and change and fighting against the republican right. Now what does that remind me of?
Verdict: the most unVan Sant Van Sant film ever, but don't let that put you off. Still the only film I can get behind for the best picture Oscar.


  1. nice write-up, though i'd quibble with one point you make:

    The Story Van Sant is telling here is very straight

    :) skjerva

  2. oops. Would you like me to say the script was very flamboyant?