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Strong performances bring story of ‘Milk’ to life

Maija Gustin | Monday, January 26, 2009

“Milk,” nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, is a biopic about the first openly gay elected politician, Harvey Milk.

Sean Penn, who received an Oscar nomination for his role, stars as the charismatic San Francisco city supervisor responsible for passing a revolutionary gay rights ordinance.

His co-stars, including James Franco, Victor Garber, Emile Hirsch and the Oscar-nominated Josh Brolin, round out his inspiring performance.

It is easy to heap praise solely on the cast for the brilliance of the film, but much of its depth and resonance come from director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black. Both received Academy Award nominations as well as nominations from their respective guilds, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America.

Van Sant, known for films like “Elephant” and “Good Will Hunting,” brings a strong eye to this film. He undoubtedly wants it to resonate, but never seems to step too far beyond reality.

It is a poignant but true portrait of a great man who has since been forgotten by the masses.

The relatively young and unknown screenwriter Lance Black gives Van Sant great material and seemingly sticks to the truth of Harvey Milk’s life. Neither has tried to avoid Milk’s faults nor build up his assets, and consequently, they have created an image of a normal but hopeful man struggling with greatness.

Where “Milk” succeeds the most, aside from some incredibly strong performances, is the atmosphere Gus Van Sant created in his film. The cinematography feels as though it could be documentary footage. Van Sant and crew successfully place the audience in the midst of an historic time, granting them a unique and wholly realistic perspective.

An excellent cast of actors who truly bring their characters to life only furthers this feel. Sean Penn deservedly won a Screen Actors Guild award for his role this past Sunday.

While Harvey Milk’s life was admittedly a sad one, Penn plays his public persona as a jubilation of the man and all the messages he stood for.

He literally transcends the role of actor and becomes a mirror to this man’s life. The strides Penn makes for the gay community feel like a universal triumph, and he is simply inspired.

James Franco, who plays Milk’s lover Scott Smith, demonstrates serious acting chops. He has been unfortunately overshadowed by Josh Brolin’s portrayal of the villainous Dan White, the man responsible for Milk’s death.

The rest of the supporting cast, headed by Emile Hirsch, mostly portray Milk’s friends and advisors and are perfectly understated. They neither stand in Penn’s shadow nor overplay their roles.

The cast as a whole is very deserving of their award for Best Acting Ensemble at the Critics’ Choice Awards.

“Milk” has been overshadowed this film season by many of its competitors. However, it is rightly deserving of its numerous nominations and, in any other year, would surely be a massive winner.

But its eight Academy Award nominations speak to its excellence. The film is a bittersweet testament to the people who fight for change and a tribute to Harvey Milk himself.

“Milk” demonstrates the harm bigotry can produce, to any group of people, and is a glimpse into the recent American past.

It should be seen, regardless of personal politics.

Contact Maija Gustin at mgustin@nd.edu