By Dan Vetanovetz
On February 22nd, films such as the political-journalsitic “Frost/Nixon,” the Brad Pitt acted “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and the Bollywood influenced “Slumdog Millionaire” will compete for eternal Oscar glory.
However, another film that has been heaped with nominations, including Best Motion Picture and Achievement in Directing, is Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” which stars Sean Penn in the title-role of Harvey Milk, a real-life 1970’s gay rights activist who became the first openly gay major public official voted into office in the United States. The film ends with the historically accurate assassination of Mr. Milk.
While “Milk” has been in limited release since November 26th, it was only recently nominated in a slew of Oscar categories. In addition to Best Picture and best Director, “Milk” has seen Sean Penn nominated for best Actor in a Leading Roll and Josh Brolin nominated for best Actor in a Supporting Roll. Brolin’s character, Dan White, is the conservative city Board of Supervisors member who is torn between antagonism and mystified respect for Harvey Milk.
Finally, “Milk” was nominated for the more self-explanatory categories of Achievement in Costume Design, Achievement in Film Editing, Achievement in Music Written for Motion Picture and Original Screenplay.
Although Oscars night may seem arcane, viewers across the United States might find new enjoyment in a film after knowing what nominators found worthy in a movie. For example, “Milk’s” costume design nomination is interesting to pick apart. Harvey Milk progresses from hippie flannels straight from a textbook picture or else a Good Will store, and ends with a well-groomed selection of suits iconic of the seventies. Meanwhile, Dan White is more frequently on screen with a brown suit that looks appropriate for a yearbook of the same era, and “Milk’s” supporters are attired in tight casual tees and flowery shirts from a disco fiend’s daytime wardrobe.
But the Costume Design is only the slightest of “Milk’s” nominations, and one which faces heavy competition from films like The Duchess, which features showy costumes from eighteenth century England. What about Best Director? Gus Van Sant, who also directed “Good Will Hunting” and the less widely seen but still excellent “Elephant,” has been in and out of the Hollywood buzz lately.
It’s clear from Mr. Van Sant’s selection of intimate camera shots in many of his films that he is an earnest film maker. With that formula, Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” was nominated for Best Director in 1997. However, will earnestness help him when matched against industry powerhouses like David Fincher with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?” With Fincher directing previous blockbusters from “Alien 3” to “Fight Club” to “Zodiac,” it seems like a challenge awaits Van Sant.
Since many Oscar years link the best Director award to the best Picture award, “Milk” is due for a similar battle in the Best Picture category. For example, last year’s Best Director winners, the Coen Brothers, had their film “No Country for Old Men” subsequently go on to win Best Picture.
Though the Coen Brothers did an excellent job with the film, the screenplay was adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, one of the World’s foremost living writers. Audiences and critics ate up the dogged human spirit tempered by tough-guy cynicism on display in the film. “Milk,” however, is the result of an original Screenplay.
Similar to “Old Country,” “Milk” is masterful at communicating strength of human spirit, although it’s attitude is more properly summed up by one of Milk’s optimistic slogans, “You’ve gotta give ‘em hope,” than by the stoic fatalism of last year’s best picture winner. “Milk” accomplishes the complexity of an American underdog tragedy with smart screenwriting and an even smarter editing knife.
The story itself is crafted to explore “Milk’s” love stories and political triumphs all within two hours. There is little time for wasteful dialogue, and there are often several tasks being completed at once: in the span of ten minutes, scenes switch from “Milk” playfully attempting to ally himself with self-serious Dan White, caustically deriding cautious supporters as weak, and tenderly coaxing his lover out of a panic attack.
However, the screenplay is made into a tight and well functioning film with the editing work. Each scene is allowed maximum punch without sacrificing a little breathing room for viewers to contemplate and consider. The cuts are easy to follow, allowing the story to unravel as fast as the viewer is able to pull its strings.
The big test for “Milk” will be whether it’s editing can stand up against the purposefully frantic editing of Slumdog Millionaire and the calculated sweeps of Frost/Nixon’s editing. “Milk’s” main strength is in taking an extraordinary character from the margins of society and making his story transcend specifics. While Milk is about a milestone for gay rights, the techniques it uses appeal even more strongly to the general triumph of the human spirit. Hopefully for Milk, those arcane Oscar gods are listening, and watching, that appeal very closely.