Wednesday, January 14, 2009


"The Plural of 'Us's' is 'I'"

I had all these cute little headlines to put at the top of this review, reflecting my disappointment with Gus Van Sant's bio-pic of slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk—"Condensed Milk," "2% Milk"—but ultimately it comes down to this: you owe it to yourself to see "The Times of Harvey Milk" the Oscar-winning documentary on Milk and his efforts to fight discrimination. No hidden links: You can watch it on Hulu here: It'll cost you nothing but 90 minutes of your time with minimal interruptions. "Milk" acknowledges its debt to this film in its final credits. Indeed, you'll see a lot of archive footage shared by both films. And "Milk," a features recreations of footage from this film. The film ends with Sean Penn, as Milk, saying the words that you'll find in the video at the bottom of this review into his tape recorder for the prescient "In the Event of My Death by Assassination" tape he made. But that sentiment was not a private one. And the film does a disservice to Milk making it so.

It also inadvertently plays into stereotypes by suggesting that Milk's assassin Dan White was a closeted gay man instead of the mentally ill person he was. White's angry (and public) resignation during a meeting of the Board of Supervisors is also made private in the film. White's sneaking into the city hall with a loaded weapon to avoid metal detectors is alluded to, but not that White re-loaded his pistol after shooting Mayor Moscone and heading to the Supervisor offices to kill three other board members (Milk was the only one present). That the crimes were deliberate seems incontrovertible. But White was only convicted of manslaughter and released after serving five years in prison.

And one can quibble about Penn's performance as well, making Milk more fey in his mannerisms (Milk had hidden his sexuality in New York for years), and giving him a thick Bronx accent more Harvey Fierstein than Harvey Milk (ironically, Fierstein narrates the "Times" documentary).

Still, ya gotta do what ya gotta do. The original documentary is 25 years old and is probably past its shelf-life. A dramatic re-telling of the tale was probably due (a twin project "The Mayor of Castro Street" has been in the works, first by Oliver Stone and more recently by writer Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer for years, and has for the time being been abandoned) if only to keep reminding people of the toll closeted life inflicted on the gay population. The battle continues to put a familiar face on homosexuality. And if a melodramatic re-telling of a pivotal story is required, so be it.

Van Sant does a fine job of mixed media cutting between vintage footage, newscasts, and recreations. And he gets great work out of his cast, particularly Penn, who's never seemed so relaxed in a role, James Franco (who gets better with each movie) as his first partner in San Francisco, and Emile Hirsch from Penn's "Into the Wild" as one of his youngest recruits.

"Milk" is a Matinee.

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