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“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you!” So goes Harvey Milk’s catchphrase in his public speeches.

In the 2003 Academy Awards, we saw one of the clearest evidence that Oscars are given, at times at least, a few years late. Sean Penn won for Mystic River, a performance that was great but not exceptional. This is why everybody saw that he won for the film for which he was nominated for two years before, I Am Sam, where he played a retardate who just wants to keep her daughter. That role was as Academy-ready as possible and he performed brilliantly and surpassed everyone’s expectations. As we all know however, he lost to Denzel Washington, who ironically enough should have won for 1999’s Hurricane.

This year he’s nominated again for the role of Harvey Milk in director Gus Van Sant’s film bio on the first ever openly homosexual person voted into major office. The film starts off right in the middle of Milk’s life, the eve of his 40th birthday and it is probably so since, as he himself claims, “Forty years old and I haven’t done a single thing.” On the same night he hooks up with a much younger gay man in Scott Smith, played by James Franco, and the two are off for an adventure that lands them in a section in San Francisco called Castro or The Castro where their openly gay lifestyle caused immediate problems for the conservative majority in the city. Their photography shop becomes the watering hole of gays in the community and after one of their friends fell victim to a hate crime and subsequently uninvestigated by the local police, it dawns on Milk that he should run for public office to represent his people.

The film was beautifully shot and the old pictures mixed with new footage puts a great nostalgic touch to things. The acting, besides that of Penn is equally impressive and there are at least three other actors who were exceptional.

Franco evokes the quiet desperation of a lover who gets pushed to the side as his partner becomes more and more powerful. Franco has got to be one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood today. In two years, he was in a superhero movie, a stoner flick and now in a drama/biopic.

If there was a Best Actor of the Year Award (and there really should be) honoring an actor’s performance for the entire year, then Josh Brolin should be a lock to get that award after his work in W and as Dan White in this movie (and if you add No Country for Old Men…my God.) White should be the bad guy but Brolin was able to show why his acts were somewhat understandable and basically tells us that in the real world, some guys are not bad but they are just in a bad situation. (By the way, look out for the scene where White gets drunk and confronts Milk. Truly one of the best scenes in the movie.)

Lastly there’s Emile Hirsch who has so far had a short roller coaster ride of a career with highs such as Into the Wild and Lords of Dogtown and the summer flop eye candy that nobody wanted to eat, Speed Racer. Hirsch is closely following in the footsteps of Ewan McGregor and Dogtown co-star Heath Ledger who are ultimately believable in every role they play. Hirsch plays Cleve Jones, Milk’s top adviser and I never found out it was him until I saw the credits.

The film is not without its faults however, and I think Van Sant should take the blame for it. Van Sant started with Milk recording a speech about his life as he expected to be assassinated at anytime. For a while however the scene where he spoke to the recorder was a bit distracting as it cuts between scenes in the first few minutes then disappears altogether for the next half hour only to come back repeatedly in the next fifteen. The speech talks about things that can already be seen in the movie anyway so it is utterly useless. Van Sant ultimately put that part because he thought, “Wow, here’s a guy talking about his death and he does die!” He thought it would tie things up neatly but instead it becomes an excess bow.

In a biopic, the story always tries to show that the guy is human and makes mistakes just like the rest of us. In a way, Van Sant went overboard a little as White seems more like a sincere if desperate soul that is at the end of his rope and Milk turns out to be much more of a traditional power wielding politician. This turns into a problem because the sympathy of the viewer shifts from the title character to the other person.

Thank God he has Penn who has been on a roll in the last few years. I would not go so far as to say that it was Penn’s best performance ever (for now that’s reserved for I Am Sam) but it is damn near the top and better than most. Penn is a clever actor and knows when to shift the character’s perspective. Milk turning into a traditional politician may not be a mistake after all because maybe that’s exactly how Milk turned out in real life. I trust Penn to know when the portrayal is not being truthful to the character and if he says that’s what happened then I’ll buy it.

Should Penn win the Academy Award this year then? Maybe. He’s in my top two right now along with Rourke. The Oscars has just as much to do with marketing and campaigning as much as acting. His portrayal speaks for itself. He’s Harvey Milk and he’s here to recruit you… for an Oscar.

8 out of 10 Stars


Thanks! I agree with most of your insights except for some--like when you said that Van Sant made White's character more sympathetic, to the detriment of Milk. I didn't get that vibe. For me, White's character was fleshed out nicely. There is cause for him to kill the guy because he is conflicted deep inside, making his character grayer as opposed to a black-and-white black guy. Hindi lang basta-basta masama siyang tao. He's just doing what he thought was right, and getting to the right point by doing a wrong deed. It gives him a more human dimension...it was his choice to kill out of his conflicting desires, and he suffered tremendously, even killing himself after being released in prison. diba. mas dramatic.

I understand what you're saying and that's what I'm saying too. What I meant however is that for me, it got to the point that I WANTED him to shoot Milk already. In terms of graying the character, at that point, White was a lighter shade of gray and Milk had the darker tones.

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