08 December 2008

Review: Milk


Genre: Drama (Biopic)

To raise a mainstream filmic biography of the first openly gay political officer in the United States - an officer assassinated in the course of his duty no less - one must of course recognize and not sublimate the high degree of advocacy the project intrinsically invokes. Forgoing that degree and having the film be otherwise clearly denies the strong history of not only, what the figure himself stood for, but also what the martyrdom of the man has since achieved (in terms of memorials, networks, social supports, and civic and legal change). Mr. van Sant, at the helm of this thus hybrid production, no, makes no games about evenly depicting its civil rights' bent, as the film, which begins as a testament of the man, concludes as a testament to him; however, nor does Gus adequately distill the vigor of his, advocate's, passions from the fidelity to the events of Harvey Milk's life, a distillation that would have found a happy balance between biography and advocacy and would have created stronger structure and direction to the narrative, which does capably tell its story but fails to enthrall as it could have in that telling.
Truth be told, this incomplete distillation is probably more the screenwriter's, Mr. Black's, failing than Mr. van Sant's; but as always, the director must bear full responsibilty for his project. And, while Gus brilliantly guided his actors through their journeys of investigation, exploration, and invocation, he sorely lacked the ability (this time) to patch the frays in his story and consistently ensure well lit, well framed scenes. His director of photography, Harris Savides, who has worked with him on many of his recent projects, has a reflectingly mottled history. While Mr. Savides tends to eke at least a few great shots out of every film he cinematographs, it seems as though those shots had been more accidents than intentional instances of brilliance, set sporadically among seas of shady lighting, clear obstructions, and jags of incongruous color(s). While Elephant (2003) stands out as his most significant work (in my opinion), that 2003 film still marks only a decency of cinematographing, of which Milk deserved far more. As it is now, the main weight on the film, pulling it down from where it could have been, is this slack in the shooting.
Otherwise, however, the film stands tall. It was well-edited, well-appointed, and very well-acted: Mr. Penn, Mr. Brolin, Mr. Hirsche, and Ms. Pill all beautifully dove into their respective characters (and looked surprisingly like those real figures to boot!). Furthermore, it succeeded marvellously in effectuating the gravity of its message/advocacy-born argument, and one of Mr. Savides' redeeming shots was serendipitously then, when it was most needed, during the culmination of the film's both external and internal ambition: the candelit vigil for the assassinated major and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
So, while - sure - like most other films, Milk could have used a greater strength of presence in a few of its aspects (and a greater laxity of presence in a few of its others), it was and is far and away one of the most potent and most skillfully created films this year.

Grade: A solid B+.

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