Wednesday, November 26, 2008


“I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.”

Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, a businessman from New York who would struggle for years in an attempt to become San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official.

The film follows the failed campaigns and the process of organizing and entire community into public activism. Director Gus Van Sant also spends considerable time on Harvey’s friendships and love life, giving us a complete picture of the man from his days before politics to his untimely end.

Penn is terrific as the lead. Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Diego Luna, and Alison Pill all put in strong performances as the constellations which revolve around Hervey’s world.

Van Sant does a good job in showing us how Harvey related to the rest of the world. Although the big public moments are meant to get your attention, its the quieter and more intimate ones that are more memorable. Though those uncomfortable with gay relationships might want to steer clear of this one.

The film is quite strong in Harvey’s struggle to gain office but begins to lose steam after he is elected. Part of the problem is Van Sant has deliberately chosen to be vague about the reasons for his death. Josh Brolin puts in a fine performance as Dan White, but we aren’t given a plausible reason for his downward spiral and eventual murder. They disliked each other? Harvey decided not to vote for White’s pet project? Animosity appears between the two in the film, but is neither explained nor explored. At one point we learn Harvey wants him fired and is prepared to use his considerable influence to make sure White isn’t reinstated after his resignation, but, once again, we aren’t shown why.

What begins as honest disagreements over policy issues somehow creates a bitter disagreement that completely unhinges White. As history is unsure, given the Twinkie Defense, Van Sant chooses to go with the uncertainty rather than try to reason out events (other than a throwaway closeted gay joke). The end result is a film which becomes confusing in what should be its strongest act. Too much unfolds off camera, and by the time we catch up to the story if feels as if we’ve dozed off and missed important plot points.

I don’t want to call a film as good as this disappointing, but in some ways it is. Penn will no doubt get a deserved nomination for the role. But, had Van Sant chosen a harder stand on the later events of Harvey Milk’s life this might have turned this very good film into one of the best of the year. Even with this flaw it’s an easy recommendation to make and a film worthy of discussion.

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