Milk will likely become director Gus Van Sant’s crowning achievement, a deeply involving story of San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the country. Sean Penn owns this role, and not only looks like Milk thanks to a subtle make-up job, but captures his mannerisms and voice effortlessly.
The best biopics focus on a specific time period of someone’s life, a choice wisely made by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Instead of wasting time on his childhood, the film begins in the mid ‘70s, just before Milk began his crusades throughout the city.
Van Sant brilliantly uses vintage footage intermixed with the actual film to add an incredible sense of realism, a gutsy move that pays off. The older footage, newscasts, and set ups are never jarring, but natural and integral to the storytelling.
Milk’s only notable flaw is one of clarity. Certain aspects of his life, and his activism, are briefly touched upon with or without clarity. The Coors Light boycott in particular seems as if it became a stepping stone towards Milk’s eventual career, but the film chooses to skim the surface of the gay boycott without the “why.”
Penn is surrounded by incredible talent, including Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk’s eventual assassin. It’s a complex role, handled with enough care that his slow descent into madness is believable and natural. James Franco as Scott Smith, Milk’s ex-partner, shows his range and versatility, a far cry from the villain in Spider-Man and stoner in Pineapple Express.
Milk spends a lot of time showing why Harvey made the political choices he did. There are only brief snippets of his other views, talking at Union meetings or with people on the street. It’s enough to cover other aspects he cared about, while staying focused on the main issue in his life. This is a movie about Milk, his fight, and his life, not politics.
At barely over two hours, one would hope for slightly more clarity in regards to certain issues, but Milk is undeniably gripping thanks to both Van Sant’s unique direction and Penn’s engrossing performance. Regardless of where you stand on the gay rights issue (which shouldn’t be an issue at all after this film), Milk is a perfectly rendered portrait of a civil rights patriot who deserves his due. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Movie]
Vintage shots aside, Milk is a mixed transfer of incredible detail, bold color, proper contrast, and an inconsistency that always creeps in. The staggering level of facial detail can disappear with a single edit. Faded black levels and occasionally yellowed tint are certainly intentional to keep with the period the film is set.
What is consistent is the transfer’s razor sharpness, which never lets up or disappoints. It’s a difficult transfer to gauge, but tends to perform on the high end more often than the low. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Video]
As a dialogue heavy drama, opportunity to shine is rare for this DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. For audiophiles, the crowded rally scenes demonstrate the best this disc can offer, with chants surrounding the viewer naturally. Dialogue has a weird tendency to jump from the center channel to the stereo channels, and not for positional purposes. It happens mid-sentence, with characters in the middle of the screen. It’s an odd quirk, with no logical reason to be done intentionally. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]
Given the loads of nominations Milk received from the Academy, you can expect a special edition sometime down the line given how Universal offers little here. Remembering Harvey is loaded with interviews from those who knew Milk and some of the cast. Hollywood Comes to San Francisco is a discussion of the characters and their real-life counterparts, and is the longest featurette at 14 minutes. March for Equality is a brief eight minute piece on how the marches were filmed. [xrr rating=2/5 label=Extras]