- Actor in a Leading Role – Sean Penn
- Actor in a Supporting Role – Josh Brolin
- Costume Design
- Director – Gus van Sant
- Film Editing
- Original Score
- Motion Picture
- Original Screenplay – Dustin Lance Black
What can you say about a 48-year-old politician who died?
Here’s the synopsis from the oscar.com website:
As the emerging Gay Pride movement gathers force in the 1970s, it finds a champion and a public face in San Francisco camera store owner Harvey Milk. Leaving his closeted life in New York behind, Milk moves to California with his lover and soon turns his efforts to politics, campaigning for a spot on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors–a quest that will make him the country’s first openly gay man to be elected to public office.
In November 1978, San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk was shot and killed by fellow supervisor Dan Brown in his offices at City Hall, shortly after Brown had also shot and killed the mayor, George Moscone. Most people know only this much (if they know anything at all) about Harvey Milk.
Director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black wisely chose to open with the assassination, rather than try to manufacture some suspense about how Milk’s life ends. As a result, the movie is more a snapshot of one facet of the civil rights movement as seen through the life of Harvey Milk, rather than a straightforward biopic of the man himself.
It’s hard not to compare Milk to Frost/Nixon, the other “based on a true story” nominee in the Best Picture category. Both are set in the mid-1970s, both are told in flashback, and both center around men who remain cultural and political giants.
In addition, both address issues that are just as relevant in the politics of 2008 and 2009 as they were in the 1970s — the legal limits of presidential power and voters’ attempts to marginalize gays. While both movies do well at recreating the feel of the era and both actors playing title characters put in terrific performances, it’s particularly in this last aspect that Milk pulls ahead.
Frost/Nixon’s repeated attempts to draw parallels between Nixon and George W. Bush through double entendre seem clumsy and unsubtle. Milk, on the other hand, was released just weeks after Californians passed Proposition 8 (defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman), which made Milk’s successful fight against Proposition 6 (banning gay teachers and anyone who supports them) both more important and more poignant to watch.
Sean Penn, who at the time of filming was almost the exact age Harvey Milk was when he died, gives a passionate, nuanced, and utterly respectful portrayal. Apparently the surviving friends whose lives are also portrary in the film say that Sean Penn perfectly captured the spirit and mannerisms of Milk. I think he is the favorite to win, although I am leaning heavily toward Mickey Rourke.
Josh Brolin also provides a wonderful foil to Milk as the uber-heterosexual representative from the adjoining district, just trying to live up to the expectations of the people who elected him — people who, like him, are holding on for dear life to the past while the world changes around them. Interestingly, Brolin is never shown eating any junk food at all in the film, which may be the writer and director’s editorial decision to discount entirely Dan Brown’s “twinkie defense.” In any case, I think that Brolin is a longshot to win over sentimental favorite Heath Ledger, but he gave a solid performance that deserved the nomination.
The costume design was well done, and apparently (according to my next door neighbor, who lived in the Castro during this time and knows someone who knows someone) some of the clothes worn by Sean Penn are actually Milk’s clothes. I do tend to think that recreating the clothes of the 1970s isn’t really as difficult as the clothes of the 1700s, though, and I don’t know that this will win.
Danny Elfman’s score was interesting without being distracting. I don’t remember much about it except that we both found the music to be a great complement to the action onscreen. It’s hard to know what will happen with this award. As I think I mentioned in another review, this is a category filled with bridesmaids (25 nominations among them, including this year’s) without a single win, so whoever gets it will be deserving.
As for the rest of the categories, Gus van Sant did a great job and I’m glad that he persevered for so long to get this film made. I appreciate how unapologetic he was about showing Milk’s relationships, and that he never tried to hedge or cheat using camera angles. The writing was also very strong and apparently the shooting script was very similar to the original spec script that was written.
Was it the best picture of 2008? I thought it was excellent and would not be at all upset if this won.
Does it have a chance against nomination-hog Benjamin Button or the favorite Slumdog? Quite possibly, especially if the Academy members want to send a message to people in California, Arizona, and Florida who all voted to prevent marriage except between one man and one woman.
In either case, maybe after the show we can all go TP Anita Bryant’s house. I’ll bring the OJ.