Cream of the crop
Milk paints hope-filled picture of groundbreaking gay politician
Gus Van Sant’s biopic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to major public office in California, has not been wildly successful at the box office so far, but it certainly deserves the respect it’s been getting from reviewers and award-nominators alike.
Sean Penn’s brilliantly detailed impersonation of Milk is the film’s centerpiece and its chief selling point—and worth the price of admission all by itself. But Milk is also an unexpectedly entertaining drama, with plenty of charm and energy to go with its smartly deployed takes on political and historical matters.
Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black follow the man’s extraordinary career through a uniquely tumultuous decade—from 1970, when Milk and his boyfriend, Scott Smith (James Franco), moved from New York to San Francisco, where they opened a camera store on the then-dormant Castro Street, through Milk’s increasingly high-profile exploits as a politician and gay-rights activist in the mid-'70s, and finally on to his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the subsequent assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
The fact of the assassination inevitably looms over the whole story, right from the start, but the film is neither as violent nor as fiercely contentious as the decade it portrays. Indeed, Van Sant seems to borrow deliberately from Harvey Milk’s own political playbook by emphasizing something like a message of hope. And one of the film’s special achievements resides in its Milk-like ability to find powerful and positive emotional focus in the midst of a wide array of discouragements and defeats.
The Harvey Milk of the film is both flamboyantly gay and shrewdly and pragmatically political. And that particular aspect of the man’s character becomes especially significant via his perplexing relationship with Dan White (Josh Brolin), the highly conflicted colleague who would become his assassin. Brolin’s smartly understated account of both the mystery and the madness in White’s character rates as the film’s second standout performance.
Penn’s Milk is both goofy and inspired in ways that give telling glimpses into the courage and intelligence in a man who was also reckless and passionate. Remarkable and dramatically variable mixtures of passion and guile also turn up in several of the key secondary characters, and Van Sant gets sensitive, complex performances from each of them—Brolin and Franco, to be sure, but also Emile Hirsch as the volatile activist Cleve Jones and Diego Luna as Jack Lira, Milk’s wildly unbalanced boyfriend in the late-1970s.
Finally, like several of its characters, Milk is both boldly provocative and cautiously engaging. Not the least of its artful points of interest is in that more or less seamless blend of the two Van Sant modes—the experimentalist (Last Days, Elephant, etc.) and the savvy entertainer (Good Will Hunting, To Die For, etc.).