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Overall Rating

Awesome: 23.33%
Worth A Look66.67%
Average: 3.33%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 6.67%

6 reviews, 24 user ratings

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by Erik Childress

"All The Queen’s Men"
4 stars

The story of Harvey Milk getting to the big screen has almost echoed the struggle for gay men and women to gain acceptance within our country. While a documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, won the Oscar in 1984 a narrative feature has remained in limbo for decades. Directors varied from Oliver Stone to Bryan Singer to Rob “xXx” Cohen to helm it and everyone from Kevin Spacey to popular choice, Robin Williams, was in line to play Harvey. While drafts were turned in and rewritten, the attitudes towards homosexuals in the mainstream slowly began to defrost, hitting a high in 2005 with Brokeback Mountain after years of Will & Grace softening up viewers at home. The honors finally went to Sean Penn and director Gus Van Sant, who is no stranger to anti-mainstream projects since his Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting over a decade ago. Together they have a crafted a well-meaning biopic that should see further honors coming their way whose message of acceptance may still be preaching just to the already converted.

On the eve of his 40th birthday, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), currently working for an insurance agency, feels he hasn’t done much with his life. Packing up with new junior boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco), they move to San Francisco and open up a camera shop in the Castro district. At first unwelcome by his fellow business owners, Milk’s shop becomes a homosexual hangout forming the beginnings of a gay landscape across this one chunk of the neighborhood. Inspired to fight for gay rights, Harvey begins campaigning for the Board of Supervisors and finds allies in local teamsters when they ask for his help in boycotting Coors and enemies as far reaching as Anita Bryant who began organizing an anti-gay campaign in Miami. While Milk forms a gay political posse including former hustler Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) who proved to have a knack at organizing and lesbian campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), his relationship with Scott is headed for a fallout and the door is opened for the unstable Jack Lira (Diego Luna) to share his bed if not his ambition.

After several failed attempts, Harvey is eventually elected to the California State Assembly as is Dan White (Josh Brolin), a prototypical Irish-Catholic former fireman who appeared in stature to be Milk’s polar opposite. Whatever misgivings White may initially have had about Harvey’s homosexuality (Harvey, at one point, theories that White may be “one of them”), he makes an effort to work with him on a conditional basis to look out for each other’s interests. White even invites him to his child’s Christening. Almost immediately though, Milk betrays White in not supporting a platform he ran upon thus setting up an adversarial relationship that would confirm the fears Harvey faced all around him on his rise to power. “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

The tug-o-war between Milk and White alone would form the basis of a complete feature and if the film leaves us wanting more its in this section that walks a tightrope in the second half. There’s a tragic irony almost out of a bad murder mystery that Harvey Milk fought so hard against prejudice and faced the threats of religious nuts and conservative family values only to be struck down by a politician who was less interested in his orientation than the man himself who he felt was stealing money from the mouths of his own family. Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay takes a surprisingly sympathetic view towards White. No Twinkies mentioned here until a final scrawl and no shoehorned irony of him being a health nut. White is constantly shown under pressure and looks like the victim when Harvey changes his tune seemingly immediately since this crucial moment is rushed to form their opposition. The background details over this vote would seem like an obvious parallel to Milk’s story (an old convent being replaced by a mental health facility for troubled youths) but here its presented as a one-scene-he’s-on-board, the next he’s not afterthought that never pauses to hear Harvey’s newfound reasoning for choosing something he believes in rather than playing the political game that could have eventually saved his life.

Because Milk plays like a straightforward biopic, Van Sant and Black leave little time for any but the most basic contemplations about anti-gay sentiments. Despite hitting upon Harvey’s brilliant assertion that they could win if only everyone knew a gay person, there’s still an in-your-face approach to the lifestyle with little self-depreciation that’s not going to win over any new voters. Especially mishandled is the relationship with Luna’s Jack. Played as if every chemical in his body is imbalancing out of his ears, he literally locks himself in the closet at one point and is a clear detriment to Harvey’s progress and the film’s second hour when there are greater developments to concentrate upon rather than Jack’s domestic flamboyance. We have an investment in the various rallys that Milk organizes (and plays faux peacemaker) and want to hear more debate than whining.

Why Milk ultimately works as well as it does though rests on the shoulders of Penn’s performance and it’s an all-encompassing piece of acting. Skirting somewhere in-between his bombastic, arms-flailing work in the disasterous All the King’s Men remake and his man-child “full retard” work in I Am Sam, Penn goes well past impersonation and commands each and every scene with sympathy and determination. Also very good is James Franco, continuing to separate himself from the stagnation of the Spider-Man series and back to the territory where the accolades for playing James Dean made him one of the hottest young actors at the time. Between his hilarious work in Pineapple Express earlier this summer and his tender, leveled performance as Milk’s younger lover, Franco is back and has us looking forward to his portrayal of Allen Ginsberg (in a film co-directed by Rob Epstein, who created The Times of Harvey Milk.) Franco’s scenes of dissatisfaction with Harvey’s political distractions and the slow reinvigoration of coming back together (culminating in a moving final phone call together) are played with a quiet dignity that shows up other actors (usually playing the wives) who tend to go for the big confrontation rather than a sad realization that there’s no room for them. Josh Brolin continues his hot streak after No Country for Old Men and W., also finding just the right note for the slow-burning family man politician. His drunk scene at Harvey’s birthday party is a riveting portrait of desperation that is nevertheless nearly sabotaged by the oddball headspace framing Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides gives scenes like this and the first meeting between Harvey and Scott.

It’s moments like those that recall Van Sant’s uber-experiments since the trifecta of Good Will Hunting, his Psycho remake and Finding Forrester. His work in Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park was enough to infuriate audiences and appease the art-conscious critics unhappy with the indie darlings attempts at mainstream Oscar baiting. Milk, at the same time for better or worse, does fall into that category. Not through intention but, for lack of a better term, playing it relatively straight with the storytelling even if it doesn’t shy away from the intimate details of the bedroom. Take that away though and the substance of Milk could have easily ended up as a made-for-cable film, albeit without quite the pedigree involved. It is a good film though, and one important enough to have possibly made a difference in the Prop Eight vote had it been released a little earlier (instead of in an all-important awards month) since Harvey Milk was precisely the kind of champion that you would want to know.

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originally posted: 11/26/08 16:00:00
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User Comments

9/16/17 morris campbell good film penn was great imo 4 stars
3/08/13 David Hollingsworth Eeerily brilliant, and an amazing film. 5 stars
10/26/09 mr.mike Penn is terrific but I agree that Rourke had the edge. 4 stars
7/20/09 MP Bartley Penn is terrific, but you can't shake the feeling it's a little too safe. 4 stars
7/19/09 michael mann i agree rourke should have definitely won 1 stars
6/22/09 devastator sucked, penn should not have gotten the oscar 1 stars
6/17/09 Simon Great performances (Penn unreal as usual), Van Sant directs like a pro, simple solid biopic 4 stars
6/12/09 tung ton the film is good but penn is great; deserved the oscar! 4 stars
6/08/09 Danny Another fine performance from Penn. Film just "OK" 3 stars
5/14/09 Colin M Wonderful ensemble cast, direction, and especially leading performance by Penn. 5 stars
4/16/09 the dork knight Slooooooo-mooooo shooting death was a bit much. Otherwise, great 5 stars
3/24/09 Baloney Part screed, part elegy, Milk held my interest better than Brokeback. 4 stars
3/14/09 action movie fan made it,s point well but is too rhetorical-times of harvey milk was better 3 stars
3/14/09 CTT Penn is eerily good, but Hirsch almost ruins it 5 stars
3/08/09 Linda Diaz The only flaw is the Josh Brolin character. asking why? then its not called lactose intole 5 stars
2/22/09 Piz pretty straight-forward biopic. well done all-around 4 stars
1/24/09 Suzz Good film; a bit long; great acting 4 stars
1/24/09 Luisa great acting by Penn...great movie 4 stars
1/15/09 FrankNFurter Great...Another review by an angry, secretly closted homosexual. 5 stars
1/15/09 dude great 5 stars
12/07/08 Kat Good film, brilliant acting 4 stars
12/05/08 James Woods Great...Another movie about homos. 1 stars
12/03/08 Eddie This film was amazing! I have never been left feeling like that after a movie. 5 stars
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  26-Nov-2008 (R)
  DVD: 10-Mar-2009


  DVD: 10-Mar-2009

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