Penn is mightier
Sean Penn is a virtual lock for another Oscar nomination with Milk, a triumphant biopic and an undeniably important movie. As Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay man to be elected to public office, Penn pays a tremendous tribute to a man who insisted upon blazing trails no matter how much opposition he encountered, and no matter how many death threats he received.
The film starts with archive footage of gay men being humiliated, getting arrested and harassed at bars simply for being homosexual. The footage is made all the more striking by the yearning music provided by Danny Elfman, who has never produced a better score. The movie then cuts to director Gus Van Sant’s framing method: Harvey Milk recording himself on a tape recorder, effectively narrating the movie and predicting his own death by assassination.
Milk, after many, many tries, got elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, after the city restructured its voting policy and allowed people to choose candidates within their neighborhoods rather than voting for citywide candidates. While in office, Milk helped pass a gay rights ordinance that was the first of its kind. He also earned the ire of fellow supervisor Dan White (brilliantly and understatedly played by Josh Brolin), who opposed many of Milk’s initiatives. On Nov. 27, 1978, White—after resigning, then trying to get his job back—gunned down Milk and Mayor George Moscone, killing them both.
Van Sant portrays another of the era’s frightening entities solely through archive footage. Anita Bryant’s simpleminded crusade against gay rights in the 1970s gets a lot of airtime in this film. Using actual footage of Bryant is an excellent move. While it might’ve been interesting to see somebody attempt a portrayal of Bryant, actual footage of the moron is quite effective. She is homophobia at its most vicious, and Van Sant has to do nothing more than show news footage of her to back up that view.
Penn does a phenomenal job of bringing Milk’s legendary charisma and warmth to the screen. The man continues to top himself as an actor, and his work here is note perfect. Penn and Van Sant take Milk through his pony-tailed early days in the Castro, through his tragic last meeting with White in his office. One always expects Penn to do something extraordinary when he steps in front of the camera, and what he does here is no exception.
Brolin is having another banner year. He put himself in Oscar contention with his portrayal of the current, bumbling president in W., and he does it again as the criminally naïve White. He portrays White as a bashful man, desperate for approval yet seemingly harmless. When his self-esteem issues result in murder, Brolin makes it scarier than the worst cinematic serial killer. He has officially become one of our finest actors.
James Franco, who absolutely killed as a humble stoner in Pineapple Express, caps off his big year with a bravura performance as Scott Smith, one of Milk’s lovers. Emile Hirsch is equally powerful as gay activist Cleve Jones, continuing to do great work in the presence of Penn (who directed him in Into the Wild).
Watching what Milk went through and died for in the 1970s makes what just happened in California with Proposition 8 all the more sickening. It’s an astonishing injustice that the state where Milk crusaded could pass a law prohibiting gay rights. The Anita Bryants of the world managed to have their way again, and anybody who threw down for that lousy law deserves a pie in the face like the one Bryant took in ‘77 (the moment is enshrined on YouTube).
Milk is a tremendous achievement for Van Sant, a film on par with his Drugstore Cowboy and Good Will Hunting. It took many years for this movie to get made, with a slew of stars passing through the project. I’m very glad it got made with Penn in the role.