Gay rights activist Harvey Milk may be best remembered for the ludicrous Twinkie defense invoked by his assassin. The new biopic Milk might remedy that distressing situation.
Milk introduces our protagonist (Sean Penn) at age 48. He’s sitting alone at the kitchen table, speaking into a recorder. The tape is to be played only in the event that he is murdered. This prescient act is recurrently used to provide a narrative spine to the episodic film.
We then see Milk, circa 1970, when he was still a Goldwater Republican living a closeted life working as a researcher for a Wall Street firm. While cruising a subway concourse, he unsuccessfully propositions a fresh-faced, much younger guy, Scott Smith (James Franco). Undaunted by the initial rebuff, Milk turns on the puppy-dog charm. He suggests that it would be tragic for him to spend the evening alone on his birthday. Scott relents and the two fall into bed together. Afterward, Milk laments, “I’m 40 and I haven’t done a single thing that I’m proud of.”
In lieu of having a one-night stand, Harvey and Scott move to San Francisco together. His hair grown long and now sporting a beard, Harvey opens a camera shop, which becomes a gathering point for gays in the city’s Castro section. Outraged by the police department’s systematic harassment of gays, Milk decides to run for political office. After three unsuccessful bids, he attracts a savvy lesbian as campaign manager (Alison Pill) and is eventually elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In the process, he becomes the first openly gay politician elected in the United States.
Enter Dan White (Josh Brolin), a seemingly straight, conservative Irish Catholic, who had been a policeman then a fireman, before being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Despite their ideological and sociocultural differences, Milk reaches out to him, recognizing the potential benefit of an alliance. Milk overcomes White’s initial homophobia and is the only board member who attends the baptism of his colleague’s daughter. However, as Milk draws increasing attention for his successful political maneuvering, White turns resentful, then hostile.
In the title role, Sean Penn adds another brilliant performance to his body of work. This luminescent portrayal comes with a variety of distinctive vocal tics and mannerisms that add to the character’s uniqueness, without ever seeming the least bit gimmicky. Penn creates a highly engaging persona, but makes no effort to idealize Milk.
Gay filmmaker Gus Van Sant is arguably the most unpredictable of directors. He made well-crafted mainstream films, like the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. In recent years, Van Sant has helmed a highly personal and largely inaccessible quartet of films, Gerry, Elephant, Final Days and Paranoid Park. With Milk, Van Sant reverts to the more traditional approach that he favored earlier in his career.
The director has confessed that he just tried to stay out Penn’s way, allowing maximum freedom to the talented thespian. Van Sant may deserve little credit for Penn’s tour de force. However, he has elicited nice turns from the supporting cast, which also includes Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna. Working from a meticulously researched original screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, Van Sant maintains the film’s pace and its dramatic tension, even though the audience knows the tragic outcome.
The production values are strong, particularly the cinematography by Harris Savides, score by Danny Elfman and editing by Eliot Graham. Milk makes deft use of documentary footage to create a sense of time and place. It recounts an era, when Anita Bryant and her fellow religious zealots spearheaded a campaign of homophobic hatemongering.
Fueled by another memorable performance by Sean Penn, Milk is an inspirational film about an ordinary man who turned his life around and achieved extraordinary things.
*** 1/2 R (for language, some sexual content and brief violence) 128 minutes