Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Run time: 128 minutes
4.5 out of 5 stars
Harvey Milk started the 1970’s in a crappy New York apartment and ended them in a coffin. In between, he was the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, and an enormously influential figure in the gay rights movement.
Gus Van Sant’s biopic, “Milk,” covers Milk’s life from the beginning of the 70’s through the night after his assassination, and presents a portrait of a man whose life was going nowhere, and he decided to not only change his own life, but the lives of those around him.
As the film opens, Harvey Milk (Penn) has just met Scott Smith (Franco), and they move to escape the stagnation of New York and open a camera store in a small neighborhood in San Francisco. Upon arriving, Milk and Smith are immediately chastised and ridiculed by the local business, which inspires Milk to become a political activist, rallying the gay members of the community to boycott homophobic businesses and create a sort of gay gentrification in the neighborhood, now dubbed the Castro. This political fire in Milk’s belly inspires him to run for office, and after two failed bids for city supervisor, he wins a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Here, he meets Dan White (Brolin), a conservative who views Milk both as an ally and a threat. The two men begin to grate on each other’s nerves as Proposition 6, which would ban gay teachers from California schools, gains momentum, and the characters slowly move toward destiny.
The film is framed by Milk recording his last will into a tape recorder, which actually occurred nine days before he was assassinated, but the film’s crucial scene comes toward the end. When White has confronted Milk on why gay rights are so important to him, Milk simply responds, “These are not just issues. These are our lives we are fighting for.” Milk spent the last few years of his life fighting for what he believed in, and Penn portrays him as a good and honest man who saw unrest in the world and wished to change it. This is one of the most effective biopics in many years mainly because of Penn’s performance, but also because Dustin Lance Black’s script and Gus Van Sant’s direction do not turn Milk into a saint or an otherworldly figure, but merely a man, faults and all.
Gus Van Sant, mixing archival footage and new footage seamlessly throughout, manages to not only tell Harvey’s story, but a story that has much prevalence in today’s society. The proposition within the film has horrifying echoes of the recently passed Proposition 8, and many of the slanderous remarks and overall bigotry of the characters can still be seen in today’s society. Sure, we have come a long way, but there is also a long way to go, and Milk helped pave the way for the debate to live on.
The film manages to pay ample attention to its supporting characters, although one wishes that they could have had more screen time. Still, fully fleshed out performances are given by all the actors, especially Franco as Milk’s first boyfriend and Emile Hirsch, almost unrecognizable in glasses and a wig, as one of Milk’s protégés. The film’s other key performance, Brolin as White, is also superb, and watching Brolin stumble around drunk during one scene is worth seeing the film for all by itself.
Ultimately, in a sea of other Oscar candidates, “Milk” stands out for being perhaps the most politically relevant film of the season, made better with superb filmmaking and great performances. It may not change the world, but it certainly can remind us how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.
Wes Lawson can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.