With accessible, but rousing direction from Gus Van Sant, a crisply informative and moving original script from Dustin Lance Black, and a terrific star turn by Sean Penn, Milk is an all too rare biographical film that not only feels achingly authentic, yet also completely relevant. Based on the true tale of slain politico Harvey Milk, a kind of funny looking New Yorker, who became the first openly gay man elected into major public office. Centering on the last eight years of his life, Milk, the movie vividly re-creates late 1970s San Francisco. And while nailing the period, there's a stark relevance to the story, easily making the first great mainstream film to center around the gay rights struggle. It's also an achievement for director Van Sant, after several years making arty, highly idiosyncratic films like Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. Milk is easily his most accessible film since Good Will Hunting while mixing the artfulness of his more avant-garde pieces in his oeuvre.
The film opens with Milk's move to San Francisco in the mid-1970s with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco.) Right away there's a contrast to the perception of liberal San Fran-- a sharp divide between the open gays and hippie counter culture crowd and the more conservative Irish Catholic residing in the Castro. The film explores the burgeoning activist forming in Milk, as he and his cohorts start to transform the Castro into the mecca of gay culture it's become, which leads to his campaigning to city supervisor. In true American Dream spirit, Milk lost the race three times in a row, but kept fighting and historically won the fourth time in 1978, after reshaping his persona from middle aged hippie\bathhouse visitor to a finely dressed man in a three piece suit. Milk greatly benefited the fourth time from the redrawing the district lines, which basically meant the only voters he had to win over were the gays and hippies. The district line reshaping also helped out fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a conservative Irish Catholic former fireman.
Once in office, Milk chronicles the initiatives that he personally championed-- a gay rights act in San Francisco, a doggie-poop ordinance that Milk created as a nice piece of free publicity, and the big one-- the fight over Prop. 6, or the Briggs Initiative. Created by Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare), and championed in the era of Anita Bryant (who like Joseph McCarthy in Good Night, and Good Luck is played by herself), Prop. 6 stated that any openly gay California public teacher would be terminated from their job. Against the odds, and thanks in part to Milk's charming aplomb, Prop. 6 lost. The film focuses back and fourth between this and the at odds relationship between Milk and White, and close knit group of activists in Milk's corner played quite well by Emile Hirsh, Emily Pill and Joseph Cross.
Van Sant and team smartly fashion the informative history with a great sense of urgency-- the interweaving of archival footage feels authentic, while artistic-- props go to cinematographer Harris Savides, and the production team for refashioning 70s era San Francisco. And yet the power of Milk is also the timelessness, in these days of Prop. 8-- we're still fighting what pioneers like Milk help to carve out. All of this is great material for Sean Penn, who is outstanding in the title role. Always an intense, formidable actor, Penn subsides slightly allowing Milk a moving sense of vulnerability-- it's easily the actor's most moving performance in ages. He contorts his voice to Milk's fey tone, but powerfully channels his power and magnitude. One gets the sense that others would follow when you spoke. The only real stumble in the film is the closing chapters of Milk's personal life; once his great love Scott leaves him, he starts a romance with an unstable Mexican named Jack (Diego Luna), which feels underdeveloped. This is notable because the the rapport between Penn and Franco is undeniably moving-- Franco is easily the warmest presence in the film.
There's something special about Milk, a love letter to a little known piece of California history, that in it's sadness and disparity, a hopeful optimism permeates that is inspiring. And that Gus Van Sant has crafted such an artful and soulful, unapologetically gay (the opening scene is a sweet interlude between Penn and Franco) depiction of his life confirms the capacity and emotional impact of such a story. The closing scene is easily one of the most powerfully moving sequences I've ever seen, and having seen real footage of said sequence in the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, that's saying something. A