Oscar Week: Milk (Ryan’s Take)

The Pre-Oscar Celebration

The Pre-Oscar Celebration

Earlier this week I said that Benjamin Button was a film that wanted an Oscar. If that’s true, then Milk is a film that is jonesing for one.

Milk is lying on the sidewalk, curled up in the fetal position, hoping that the Academy will pass by and drop a statue in its upturned hat.

It’s a personal story of a man who triumphs over adversity despite the prejudices of society, deeply impacts those around him, takes on the system from within, struggles to find love, and dies a martyr. Oh, and it’s about gay rights and stars Sean Fucking Penn. Scientists could not create a more formulaic Oscar grab in a lab. It’s the kind of transparent effort I really enjoy tearing apart. Unfortunately for me, Milk is, for the most part, a very good movie.

Milk is an incredible gathering of talent. I’m not much of a Sean Penn fan, but I will say that he knows how to really become his character. He portrays Harvey Milk with so much honesty, enthusiasm, and sadness, that I bought into it right away and never saw his performance falter. James Franco, who–let’s face it–is hit or miss, was excellent as Harvey’s longtime partner Scott. The most interesting of Milk’s followers was Cleve, and I spent the film trying to figure out where I knew the actor from. It’s Speed Racer. That blew me away. Call Emile Hirsch a new favorite of mine.

Brolin swoops in to steal the scene.

Brolin swoops in to steal the scene.

Finally, if Heath Ledger wasn’t such a lock for best supporting actor, I’d put my money on Josh Brolin. He has relatively few scenes, but commands every one of them with ease. I’d like to see this movie again because Brolin’s character has his own parallel movie running alongside Harvey’s that I feel I didn’t fully appreciate the first time through.

However, Milk follows the trend among this year’s best picture nominees by pairing fantastic acting with a comparatively weak plot. Not as weak as The Reader or even Frost/Nixon, but a bit stiff for my tastes. There aren’t clear story beats to latch on to. Rather than gradually building tension leading up to an important moment, the film tends to hop around from one milestone in Milk’s life to the next. You’ll only realize something was significant just after it happens. This lends to the documentary feel, but makes for a climax that comes out of nowhere, abruptly ending the film.

Still, I can’t stay mad at this movie. Milk’s story is one that deserved the cinematic treatment, not only because more people should know it, but because it makes for great entertainment. And if that means an Oscar or two goes its way, then I won’t protest.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
8 out of 10

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