Making a biopic of a famous person can be the easiest thing. The work of winning audiences, curiosity and admirers is usually done by the person in question long before someone?s endeavour to capture his or her life cinematically.
On the other hand, making a biopic can also be the most difficult thing, because the task at hand is to compress an entire lifetime into a compact two hours. Can a film ever really do justice to a lifelong struggle?
Gus Van Sant, director of Milk
, has made a sincere attempt to capture the life of Harvey Milk, America?s first openly gay city supervisor. Harvey Milk the man, Castro street, and three unsuccessful election campaigns are the subject of Van Sant?s film.
Van Sant has used an interesting mix of modes to depict the fiery but short political life of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). From a steady, reminiscing narrative by Milk shortly before he was assassinated by Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), to documentary footage of the period after Milk died, to shot footage that is treated to resemble documentary footage?Van Sant has gone out of his way to make his film?s narrative and visuals unique.
Despite trying various methods to bring events, people and the life of Harvey Milk together, the film remains a collection of highlights. It begins with Milk meeting Scott (James Franco) who sticks with him for eight years and through most of his tough political life, and quickly moves to Milk?s decision to enter the world of political activism. With the move to Castro street, it is really snapshots of the time around every election Milk contested that populate the film, with personal moments sprinkled almost as afterthoughts.
Milk?s life before Castro street, his job as an insurance salesman, his consistent interest in younger men would have given this film some more food for thought. The way it is, it just binds together information that was news even in its own time. The personal is minimal, and social and psychological is sadly missing, in the film.
The greatest asset of Milk
is Sean Penn. Van Sant may have cast Penn for his striking resemblance to Harvey Milk, but it is his performance that makes this film so moving. Penn has effortlessly entered the character ? at once charming, persuasive and vulnerable. His portrayal of Harvey Milk is even more heart-rending and strong than his performances in Mystic River
and I am Sam
, arguably two of his best films.
Josh Brolin is the other strong point of the film. The ambition, frustration, struggle and ultimate snapping of Dan White is well written and beautifully played. Even actors like James Franco and Emile Hirsch are great additions to the cast.
There are a few strings missing in the story, but all in all, it is a moving film and is worth watching, if not for anything else, then to see Sean Penn at his best.
Other Oscar reviews
The ReaderThe Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonSlumdog MillionaireFrost/Nixon