Milk (Van Sant, 2008)

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In response to Milk, Gus Van Sant’s well-crafted biopic on the San Francisco Gay Rights activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) who was gunned down in 1978, some critics have chided the film and its director for being too “mainstream,” or far too dependent on classical Hollywood cinema. But this seamlessness is the very reason Milk achieves such a sweeping emotional reaction while addressing a volatile situation still playing out on our California streets (Prop. 8 anyone?). The key difference between Milk and say the overly sentimental Benjamin ButtonΒ is that the former earns every bit of emotion, through both incredible acting from it’s cast and Van Sant’s sly manipulation of perception vs. reality. Both films structure their narratives through flashbacks, but Van Sant uses a first person narrative (Harvey recording his life story into a tape recorder) to display the man’s pitfalls and victories through the hazy lens of a personal history. This occurs most beautifully in the final moment of the film, when Harvey finishes his “Oscar” prose about hope, turns the recorder off and sits silently, left with his thoughts one last time before the screen cuts to black. It’s a stunning ending of uncertainty to a film obsessed with reconciliation, where the battle between doubt and strength plays out in multiple forms and fashions, leaving tragedy, compassion, and revelation in its wake. Thankfully, it’s mainstream enough for everybody to get the point.

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