Milk: Oscars 2009
A film should really be judged on its ability to stand on its own, regardless of context or timing. However, it is difficult to discount the timeliness of Milk, Gus Van Sant's moving drama about the life and tragic assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to office in California.
In a year when "hope" has been draped over every strata of society, no figure epitomizes the word more than the courageous Milk, excepting the gentleman currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Likewise, in a year where the struggle for equality took a blow with the passage of proposition 8 in California, Milk serves as a reminder of not only the damaging effects of intolerance and hatred but more importantly the potential for compassion and understanding within the human spirit.
The film begins as Harvey, played with deep sensitivity and an understated strength by the always-up-to-the task Sean Penn, decides to leave New York for the more welcoming streets of San Francisco. Milk and his partner Scott Smith, the very sharp James Franco, quite literally set up shop in one of the city's burgeoning Bohemian neighborhoods, "The Castro." Milk quickly finds himself embroiled in local politics, where he is surrounded by a raucous cast of characters, including the young Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch in what may be his best performance to date), culminating in his election to the role of city supervisor.
When Milk finds himself taking on Proposition 6, an initiative to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools, the audience, regardless of their political beliefs, cannot helped but be moved by the ability of one man to unite those around him and give a voice to the voiceless.
Penn is more than deserving of his Oscar nod, for his ability to show the deeply personal side of a revered public figure, as is Josh Brolin who reaches new levels of complexity in his turn as the disturbed Dan White, Milk's conservative foil on the Board of Supervisors.
Van Sant brings alive the vibrancy and feel of San Francisco in the 1970s. By sprinkling archival footage throughout the film he manages to give the picture a sense of reality.
In the smallest sense Milk is a civics lesson, and a damn good one at that. In a much grander sense, however, it is a story about unity in the face of adversity. It is about a belief in a better tomorrow.