It took Hollywood exactly 30 years to bring Harvey Milk's story to the silver screen, and Gus Van Sant gives the pioneer in gay politics a dignified tribute.
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) is a forty-year-old insurance salesman when he meets his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). Realizing he hasn't "done a thing" in his life especially being an office drone, Milk decides to leave New York City and moves to San Francisco with Scott for a change. They settles in the Castro district and opens a camera store. As self-proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street," he encourages homosexuals to claim Castro as their home and helps drive gay-unfriendly businesses out.
Milk becomes more active in the political scene as he takes on the discrimination (including police brutality) more seriously and passionately. His friends help him to seek public office. After a few unsuccessful bids, Scott can't take it anymore and breaks up with him. But Milk believes he really can make a difference in the political arena. With the help of Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) and a former-hustler-turn-activist Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), Milk makes history and becomes the country's first elected openly gay public official.
With that ascension comes death threats and national attention. Ever flamboyant and gregarious, Milk enjoys the spotlight. He tries to work with fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) but refuses to play by White's rule. When Anita Bryant and Sate Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) take the fight to California with Proposition 6 (which aims at firing gay teachers and those who support them), Milk works endlessly to try to defeat it. His eventual victory and national spotlight further alienates Dan White, who resigns as supervisor and then tries to get his job back. When White fails to reclaim his job, his next move forever changes history and propels Milk into the realm of legend.
Sean Penn (All the King's Men) is without a doubt one of the best actors of our generation. It's difficult enough to play a real-life, bigger-than-life person, but Penn succeeds in not only physically transforming himself both in terms of looks and mannerism, but also in embodying Milk's spirit and soul. Harvey Milk is so unlike other characters the actor has played before, and he does an outstanding job and utterly disappears into the role.
The supporting cast is stellar and impressive, considering the average age of these actors is under 30. James Franco (Pineapple Express) is affecting as the loving but unambitious lover of Milk. He has the right mix of aloofness, passion and ambivalence to make the role work. Diego Luna (The Terminal) is also very good as Milk's troubled new lover, Jack. Alison Pill (Dan in Real Life) is a bit too soft as Milk's aggressive campaign manager, and Victor Garber (Eli Stone) is mostly in the background as Mayor George Moscone. Denis O'Hare (Quarantine) makes a nice impression as the villain.
The standouts are Josh Brolin (W) as Dan White and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) as Cleve Jones. Fresh off his tour-de-force portrayal of G.W. Bush in W, Brolin delivers another knockout performance as someone very different -- the introverted, psychologically troubled man whose drastic action probably did more for the gay cause than Milk himself. And Hirsch truly is a young actor to watch -- his portrayal of the famed activist is nuanced and interesting, and he captures both Jones's naivete and political awakening extremely well.
Written by Dustin Lance Black (Big Love), the script follows a conventional biopic formula, framed by a prophetic narration by Milk himself (a taped "confession" of sort in the event of his assassination). The story focuses on the last 8 years of Milk's life, from his "awakening" to right after his death. At times, it is very episodic and we don't get to see enough of Milk in his personal life. Much of the film focuses on his political life. Yet, his personality and relationships are well portrayed by the outstanding performances of Penn and his costars.
Black's writing is powerful in that he keeps it simple. He also repeats certain key phrases and themes that define Milk's legacy. The only weakness is that by focusing mostly on Milk himself, we don't get to see too much the other side, particularly Dan White. We're left with a vague idea of what Dan White was all about and what led him down that path. Still, I think the characterization of Dan White is a bit sketchy, despite Brolin's effective performance.
Gus Van Sant's (Paranoid Park) direction is strong, crisp, and well-paced. The frame works beautifully. And Van Sant makes a great decision to just let the camera roll and his actors do their thing. The camerawork has a nice period feel to it, and Van Sant makes some interesting decisions to include historical footage, adding to the authenticity of the film. Perhaps it's just a coincident, but the events surrounding Proposition 6 in California eerily reflects what is going on with Proposition 8. It's amazing how much has changed in 30 years, and how much hasn't.
The ending and the coda of the film are particularly poignant, almost poetic. He reminds us that this is not a depressing story about a man's death and the injustice of the world, but about one man's passion and vision of a better world, his conviction and sacrifices, and the hope that he inspired. In that sense, Van Sant succeeds in fading into the background and just let the characters tell their stories.
Milk is not trendsetting or unconventional in any way. It's a solidly made, uplifting biopic about a controversial public figure who made a difference. With its wonderful acting, effective writing, and skillful direction, all the elements of the film simply work together like milk and honey.
Stars: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: Dustin Lance Black
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, nudity, brief violence
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 8.1 out of 10