To call Sean Penn a brilliant actor has become a bit redundant. He's been delivering one outstanding performance after another for so long that it's almost easy to take his talent for granted. But then along comes a movie like Milk, which obviously gives Penn the kind of role where he can hit a home run. What's astounding is that he does even more than that this time. Penn not only hits a home run, but the ball goes over the wall, across the parking lot, and through the window of a nearby business. Which is, of course, my hyperbolic way of saying that this will go down as one of the actor's seminal performances.
Directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), the film is the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to high public office in the United States. We first meet him as a New Yorker in the 1970's. Seeking an environment where his sexuality is less of an issue, he and lover Scott Smith (James Franco) move to San Francisco and open a small camera shop on Castro Street. Not everyone is welcoming of a gay business owner, but Milk encourages members of the increasingly gay community to support gay-run businesses and shun ones that are unfriendly. The plan works beyond his dreams, opening the door to a newfound sense of advocacy.
Before long, Milk realizes that there's a whole segment of the city without a public voice. He runs for office - and loses - multiple times, yet manages to lose with more and more votes with every election. It seems that his message is being heard. Eventually, he is elected city supervisor. During his time in office, Milk leads the charge on a number of gay rights issues, most notably opposing Proposition 6 (a.k.a. the Briggs Initiative), which would have forbidden gays to teach in public schools. He also clashes with another supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin), a tightly-wound family man who resents some of Milk's political moves. Of course, White eventually assassinated his rival and gave birth to the infamous "Twinkie defense."
Harvey Milk had an eventful life, a tragic death, and a lot of friends and supporters who continue to carry on his mission of fighting for gay rights. By simply depicting the facts, Milk would be an effective screen biography. What makes it so extraordinary, though, is that the film does more than give a recitation of facts; it creates a full psychological portrait of its subject, showing us how he worked and loved, fought for what he believed in, saw and exploited opportunities, and inspired those around him. Sometimes you walk away from a biopic filled with admiration for the subject but not necessarily understanding anything about them that you couldn't read in a book. Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black take the time to balance everything out so that you fully understand why Harvey Milk was such an important figure in modern politics.
One way this is accomplished is through the insertion of real archival footage amid the recreations. This can be a tricky thing to pull off, but Van Sant does it masterfully, carefully selecting footage that integrates into the story more effectively than a re-creation could. For instance, he uses news coverage of Dianne Feinstein announcing the assassination of Milk and mayor George Moscone to the media. Her anguish - and the anguished reaction of the crowd - drives home the very real loss that many felt on that famous "Black Monday." For this reason, Milk is more than a history lesson; it's almost like taking a trip back in time to experience life in San Francisco during the era. You walk away with a full understanding of how politically charged the time was.
Then there's Penn, who disappears into the role. On the surface, the actor could not be more different from the person he's playing. Milk was intentionally outrageous and outspoken; Penn has a reputation for being quiet and brooding. Milk was a notorious prankster; Penn has rarely displayed a sense of humor in his public persona. Plus, Harvey Milk had a timbre of voice and a physical posture quite different from Penn's. Despite all this, the actor morphs into a completely credible version of Milk. And most importantly, he conveys the man's power to inspire. Sitting through the picture, it's easy to understand why people followed him. He saw angles no one else noticed. He knew how to get attention for his causes. While they may have their differences, Penn figures out exactly how to portray Milk's charisma, which served as a beacon during a dark time in modern civil rights.
There's a lot more great stuff to mention, including the outstanding supporting work from the likes of Franco, Brolin, Emile Hirsch (as Cleve Jones), and Victor Garber (as Moscone). But what I want to come back to is Harvey Milk himself. This movie wisely focuses not on his politics but on his political views. There's a difference. Politics are external; they’re the button you push in the voting booth. Political views are internal, reflecting the reasons why you push that button. What I mean to say is that the film is very concerned with showing the motives behind Milk's political maneuvers. What comes though loud and clear is that he cared very deeply about gay rights. That passion drove him, despite the costs (his relationship with Smith) or perils (frequent death threats). What you take away from Milk is that this man recognized the need for someone to step up to the plate. He saw ways to protect personal liberties, and since nobody else was leading the charge, he felt a moral imperative to do it. This was his heroism, and it's a characteristic that the film conveys strongly.
Perhaps more than anything, that's what I love about Milk. It takes the conventional biopic structure and adds to it, telling you not just what this person did but making you comprehend why he did it. Perhaps that becomes most clear in the scenes between Milk and Smith. As with all Milk's relationships, it was doomed. And yet he believed in love. He and Smith just wanted to be together, to love each other, to work normal jobs, to live in a nice neighborhood free from prosecution. It's what we all want. Most of us don't even have to be conscious of these rights because no one has ever threatened to take them away from us. It was a different story for people like Harvey Milk. When someone is trying to condemn your rights, you have only two options: hide away or fight. Milk fought the good fight.
By turns funny and dramatic, sorrowful and inspiring, Milk combines grade-A acting, an astute screenplay, and innovative, passionate direction into a package that entertains even as it drives home some important ideas. There have been dozens and dozens of screen biographies over the decades. This one raises the bar on the genre.
( out of four)
Milk is rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.
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