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.

September 11 (11’09”01) (Various, 2002)

11 films made by 11 directors from 11 different countries working with “complete artistic freedom” tackling contrasting experiences concerning the tragic event. A mouth full, but an admirable goal considering the circumstances. Amazingly, most of the films are a success, especially the three standouts – Samira Makhmalbaf’s opening breath of desert air about an Afghan school teacher attempting to relay the massive scope of the disaster to her students, Idrissa Ouedraogo’s charismatic comedy concerning a group of school boys who think they see Bin Laden in Burkino-Faso, and finally Mira Nair’s heartbreaking story of a Muslim mother whose son goes missing after the towers fall, only to watch the media and the F.B.I. call him a terrorist. Other directors like Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, and Amos Gitai also make an impact with vastly different points of view, using genre as a springboard for emblematic tensions ripe with drama. But there’s a stunning theme of displacement connecting each film, a relentless similarity running parallel to the tragedy unfolding in New York City. It’s not surprising that the American entry, directed to the cinematic edge by Sean Penn, tells of an elderly man (the great Ernest Borgnine) entrenched in darkness, whose sad revelation of loneliness only comes as the towers fall. Have American’s always been this isolationist? Possibly, but September 11 goes to great lengths to jar the viewer (no matter the country) from misjudgment and fear and toward something resembling global compassion.

Into the Wild (Penn, 2007)

Most unsuccessful Hollywood films suffer from one common failure – an unworthy story. So it’s great to see Sean Penn’s haunting new film Into the Wild prove how infectious a great story can be when told with care and purpose. Adapted from Robert Krakauer’s source novel about 22 year old Christopher McCandless’ travels through the American wilderness, Into the Wild paints a romantic portrait of the college graduate/runaway hero looking for spiritual rebirth. McCandless (played with charisma and gusto by Emile Hirsch), retreats away from his dysfunctional family, friends, and material belongings for the open air and adventure of the road, meeting a cast of memorable characters along the way, the most wonderful being a hippie couple (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a grain farmer (Vince Vaughn), and a lonely Vet (the sublime Hal Holbrook) with his own heartache to spare. Each falls in love with McCandless’ free wheeling spirit and charm, and are heartroken when he leaves them for the next turn. Chris understands each of their pain, yet he sees them as steps of experience toward the ultimate awakening – living off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. Most of the film is told through flip flopping time frames, paralleling Chris trekking through America’s backwoods, deserts, and rivers, with what ends up being his final resting place, an abandoned school bus in the Alaskan tundra. Penn utilizes this editing style to juxtapose Chris’ wonderful experience with the people he befriends, and his lonely demise after eating the wrong roots from the local terrain. For such a determined character to realize in his final moments the “one with nature” philosophy he’d lived by was incomplete without human connection, really speaks to the power of both Hirsch’s spellbinding performance (especially in the final moments) and Penn’s incredible patience with the material. Into the Wild depends on plenty of fantastic nature photography to create an aura of the wilderness worthy of McCandless’ vision, but these moments stand out only because the story unfolding holds beauty and mystery for the characters themselves. Thankfully, we get to share in the awe, of both McCandless’ fateful and revealing odyssey and Penn’s gallant and conflicted cinematic representation.