Top Ten Movies of 2008 — Number Nine


Gus Van Sant’s Milk pulls off the gratifying trick of making the fact that its title character is gay simultaneously vitally central and utterly beside the point. Harvey Milk’s mid-seventies rise from San Francisco small businessman to influential political figure is largely predicated on and shaped by his identity as a homosexual man. His sense of how community works–how to understand it, how to motivate those who are a part of it–is built there from the ground up. The powers of persuasion that serve him well in San Francisco municipal government are forged there. Perhaps most importantly, the urgency to stand up and be counted is born of that identity because of the sheer number of people willing to cruelly, publicly insist that he mattered less because of the gender of those he was drawn to, emotionally and sexually. And yet, Van Sant makes it beside the point, because Milk does not make the argument that Harvey is worthy of a film because he was a groundbreaking gay man. He is worthy because he was a fascinating figure: kind and insightful, idealistic and driven, inspiring to those he recruited to his causes even as he bolstered his inner conviction with their collective energy. He led beautifully, warmly, pragmatically. He died too young, robbed of a future of greater and greater achievements by the expended bullets of a jealous assassin. In the title role, Sean Penn embodies the man, bringing all these qualities to the screen with a loose, joyous freedom. He joins with Van Sant to create a compelling portrait of someone who earned his place on the screen not because he was a gay man, but because he was a great man.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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