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April 14, 2009

DVD of the Week – Review of Milk (2008)

by HELEN GEIB

Milk was released on DVD the same day as Let the Right One In, Rachel Getting Married, and Synecdoche, New York, three films that, between the two of us, Rishi and I were anxious to promote. Now that those films- and the intervening new recommended releases- have had their turn, I want to take another look at Milk.

Milk is a biopic of Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and community leader in San Francisco in the 1970s whose fame was tragically secured by his 1978 murder in San Francisco’s city hall by a deranged former city council member. The film is primarily distinguished by Sean Penn’s fine performance as Milk, which won him the Academy Award for Best Actor of 2008.

The story begins with a brief prelude establishing Milk’s closeted, unremarkable life in New York City before he moved to San Francisco in 1972 (he was 40ish) to make a fresh start. The remainder of the film follows his inspirational second life as a community organizer and political activist. He mounted several unsuccessful bids for city and state office, using his campaigns to focus attention on gay rights issues and to motivate others to become politically engaged, before being elected to the Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s city council). He was serving a first term that had seen passage of a landmark anti-discrimination city ordinance and defeat of a statewide referendum on proposed legislation targeting homosexual state employees when he was murdered.

Milk offers a well-developed characterization of its subject and a review of the main biographical points of his later life that emphasizes his broad-based community activism and commitment to inclusiveness. By focusing on his politically active years, the film sidesteps one of the common pitfalls of the biopic genre: biting off more than can be chewed by trying to tell a person’s entire life story and its significance in under two hours. The film has space to sketch in Milk’s inner circle, his killer, the nuts and bolts of San Francisco politics, the divide within the movement over whether to work for change from within or press for change from without, and the national political-social backdrop.

The film devotes considerable attention to that last element, and is by design a primer on the history of the gay rights movement in this period. It is also deliberately crafted for consumption by mainstream audiences. The few scenes with sexual content are very discreetly staged and shot and the equally few references to drug use and casual sex are similarly oblique.

The explicit message of the film is that people cannot be denied fundamental civil rights for being different, while its underlying approach is to downplay the differences. I raise as a point for further consideration whether the approach supports or undercuts the message.

Special features on the DVD are deleted scenes and three featurettes on Milk and the making of the film.

Original Commentary Track review of Milk by Tom Nixon.

New releases this week: The Reader, The Spirit, Splinter


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