Milk is far better than I was expecting it to be, even after reading Todd McCarthy's positive review. It had been described to me as small, political, an acting vehicle for Sean Penn. It's far more than that.
First of all, Dustin Lance Black's script is as lean and disciplined as Gus Van Sant's direction. (And that is not always true of Van Sant, although his recent indie films have been spare, even austere.) There is nothing indulgent about this film. Every actor is well cast, and Penn's performance is towering, detailed, specific, poignant. As easy as it can be to dislike Penn the man (pick your poison), you can't dismiss this performance, because he makes you care deeply about this guy. Penn will be nominated, in a competitive year.
Milk is the perfect Academy movie--moving, and political, especially in an Election year with Proposition 8 on the California ballot--and could get to Best Picture. It reminds us of how far we've come, in a short time, and how far we still have to go.
Yes, there are other political movies in contention this awards season. But Ron Howard and Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon is somehow stuck in the past, contained, small, and less fun than the play. It's somber, lacks that edge of humor, the equal force of two strong personalities going head to head in real time. On-screen, with close-ups and editing, Frank Langella dominates as Nixon, and Michael Sheen diminishes as Frost, through no fault of his acting. It's about screen charisma. Oliver Stone's Nixon, finally, had more depth and Shakespearean grandeur.
Stone's W. is fine, but slightly misses the mark, through bad timing, mostly. Josh Brolin is brilliant as W., but Milk's Dan White is an ill-defined part--we don't get under the skin of this guy to understand his neurosis. The rest of Milk's supporting ensemble, James Franco, Diego Luna and Emile Hirsch, are all strong in small roles that aren't showy enough to take them to supporting actor noms. Because of W., Brolin could get a nom on Milk's coattails. I was most impressed with Franco (who made comedy look easy in Pineapple Express). My one wee complaint: Danny Elfman's music was a tad treakly.
I could see picture, director, screenplay, actor, editor.
Here's the trailer:
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]