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Milk (2008)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/10/2009

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/2/2009

The Academy loves docudramas. It's so ironic -- when a LifeTime movie is "inspired by actual events", people ridicule it. However, make a major motion-picture which is reality-based and the Oscar voters will fall over themselves praising it. Just look at some Best Picture winners in recent history; Schindler's List, Titanic, Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, and Million Dollar Baby. This year was no exception, as Milk won the Oscar for Best Actor (Sean Penn) and Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black). But, does the fact that a movie is taken from real life guarantee that it will be good?

Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). The story opens in New York City in 1970. Milk, an insurance salesman, meets Scott Smith (James Franco) and they spend the night together. Harvey admits that he wants to do more with his life now that he's turned 40. So, the two pack up and move to San Francisco, where Harvey opens a photo store. Soon, Harvey and Scott become aware of the large gay community in the area (specifically, the Castro district), and Harvey begins to hear stories of oppression and abuse from the authorities towards the homosexual community. Surrounded by a group of fellow gay men who believe in his cause, Harvey decides to run for city supervisor (which is like city council). He loses, but this only strengthens his resolve and he keeps running and recruiting more followers until he finally wins. However, when Harvey takes office, a strong anti-gay-rights movement (lead by Anita Bryant) begins to sweep the country and he soon finds himself embroiled in a debate which reaches much farther than his small neighborhood street.

Milk is one of those (relatively) small, but important historical dramas which recounts a story of how one man created change. Harvey Milk has been likened to the Martin Luther King of the gay rights movement and this comparison is very apt. This man never turned to violence and always wanted to settle issues through discourse and politics. His story is one which needs to be told as he's most likely well-known in California and in the gay community, but his life and actions aren't something which permeated society. (I lived through the period in which the film is set (but I was quite young) and growing up on the East Coast, I wasn't familiar with Harvey Milk until years later.)

Director Gus Van Sant and Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have crafted a film which works very hard to capture the feel of the time. Van Sant seamlessly blends home movie and stock footage from the seventies within the film to give us a true feel for what The Castro was like at that time. The individuals who surrounded Harvey are present in the film, and this drives home how beloved he was. The story spans eight years and shows us how he went from humble businessman to a still humble public official.

The acting in the movie is top-notch. As usual, Penn loses himself in the role, and when Harvey suddenly grows a beard and ponytail, I honestly didn't recognize him. I for one think that Penn is one of those actors who is way too serious and it was good to see him play someone with a sense of humor and while the dramatic moments are powerful, it's the lighter moments where he shines. Josh Brolin is not only a dead-ringer for the real Dan White, but he brings a quiet intensity to the role of the man who can't seem to come to grips with the fact that everyone loves Harvey.

As good as Milk is, there are some problems with the film. We know why Harvey gets into politics (to help those around him), but we never learn why he chooses to run himself and not just help out in the community. It's vague as to why Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) would be so supportive of such sensitive issues. The Jack (Diego Luna) just seems to come out of nowhere and we don't learn much about him. And, I knew that there was something else bothering me about the movie, but I couldn't put my finger on it until I watched Cadillac Records the following night. Milk is too subtle in its portrayal of the political climate of the time (bear with me, I do have a point). Harvey and his friends talk about the oppression of the homosexual community, but we never see it, save for some photos over the opening credits. Film is a visual medium and the film would have been much more powerful if there had been scenes showing these issues instead of simply having the characters discuss them. To that end, I found myself far more moved by the anecdotes about Harvey Milk in the special features than by the film itself.

That nitpicking aside, there's no doubt that Milk is a well-made and important film. The acting is great and the attention to detail superb. More importantly, the movie holds a mirror up to society and reminds us of our bizarre mistakes from the past.

Milk wants to recruit you to Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc features a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 32 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing only a slight amount of grain and no defects from the source material. The colors are good and the image is never too dark or bright. The depth and level of detail are OK, but the image is a bit flat looking at times. I can't help but wonder if Van Sant didn't do this on purpose to match some of the stock footage. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.3 Mbps. This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Given that this is a drama, the audio is still pretty impressive. We get our best doses during the rally scenes, where the crowds pour from the surround sound channels and we get a distinct impression of sounds taking place behind us. The stereo effects are good, and show a nice level of detail. The in-film music sounds very good.

The Milk Blu-ray Disc contains only three extras. "Remembering Harvey" (13 minutes) contains interviews with Milk's real-life cohorts, many of which have cameos in the film. They give moving stories about their experiences working with Harvey and they discuss his legacy. Oddly, there is no archive footage of the real Harvey Milk here. "Hollywood Comes to San Francisco" (15 minutes) is a making-of featurette which features comments from the cast and crew, as well as some special guests. It starts with a discussion of the like of Harvey Milk and Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black talks about his inspirations for the story. The real Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg give their thoughts on the authenticity of the movie. We then get a discussion of the production and how shooting in San Francisco effected the actors. We also learn that many real-life members of Harvey's group have cameos in the film. Van Sant's work is discussed, but he's notably absent here, as is Penn. "Marching for Equality" (8 minutes) the large rally marches which were re-created for the film. Instead of looking at how these were staged, we hear from people who were at the actual events and they discuss the significance of those protests and how they changed the world.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long