Rarely has an actor disappeared into a role as completely as Sean Penn does in Milk, Gus Van Sant’s deeply affecting tribute to the 70’s era gay civil rights crusader. Penn’s performance here ranks as his very best, alongside his mesmerizing turn as a death-row inmate in Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking from 1995. Nothing the actor has done since can prepare the viewer for the miraculous gift of a performance he delivers in Milk — a gift to his profession, to his audience, but, most of all, to Harvey Milk himself. There is no Sean Penn in this film — no sense of an actor “acting,” there is no ego, no self-awareness, no flamboyance. There is only the man he portrays, and it’s a performance worth a thousand terrible ones from mediocre performers who we are regularly subjected to.
Gus Van Sant’s film is also no routine biopic. It is not so much a chronological accounting of its subject’s life as it is a richly layered portrait, an affectionate and personal poem dedicated to the memory of a social hero. That Harvey Milk, a San Francisco city supervisor and the first openly gay elected official in America, lived a controversial life in politics that ended all too briefly by assassination is not the end but the beginning of Van Sant’s telling. Milk’s death is framed in the context of sacrifice and as a tragic consequence to his years of charismatic and fearless service to the cause of bringing gay equality and civil rights to the American mainstream.
Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay focuses on Milk’s final eight years, chronicling his move to San Francisco’s Castro district in the early 70’s through his galvanic rise to prominence in the city’s — and the nation’s — political life. The Castro of that era is gorgeously evoked throughout by Van Sant’s superb cinematographer Harris Savides. It’s the exuberance of this neighborhood that draws Milk here from New York in the early ’70s. When he opens a modest camera store with his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco), he has no inkling of political activism till he begins to take part in mobilizing a gay-friendly business ethic in his local community. Soon, the camera shop turns into Milk’s election headquarters when he makes a series of bids for office, staffed by what would become his core political team, culminating in his winning the city supervisor seat in 1977.
Milk’s private life — his relationships with Smith and later with Jack Lira (Diego Luna) — suffer, even tragically, at the hands of his demanding public life. But the 70’s was a volatile time for the gay rights movement when such right-wing zealots as Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) were successfully mounting anti-gay movements across America, repealing referendums meant to protect gay rights. Milk was among the sole voices of anger and resistance against that tide of intolerance, the movement required his constant vigilance, and Van Sant and Black effectively paint a vibrant picture of the politically combustible gay scene at this time. The Castro was prone to uprisings — violent at times — and ugly police reprisals, it was both the epicenter of the gay movement, and a barometer of gay culture in America.
If there is any notable flaw in Black and van Sant’s telling, it may be that it is too affectionate, too titled toward the cause of canonizing Milk at the expense of fairly depicting his and his milieu’s less endearing attributes. Van Sant wants a saintly eulogy to Milk, and that deprives his subject some of his complexity — we do get a taste of his overweening egoism and manipulativeness once Milk is in office, but, for the most part, Van Sant’s portait is, above all, his bid to canonize his subject, so the Milk that we see here is a largely charming and endearing personality.
Milk is also something of a valentine to the Castro of the 70’s, alive with love and political activism, dispensing with the nastier aspects of drug abuse and decadence — the very things that fueled conservative America’s prejudice towards the gay community in the first place. As a result, many of Van Sant’s supporting characters — those in Milk’s inner circle– are rendered a bit too much like happy, enthusiastic disciples, and the community at large as the gay version of Haight-Ashbury, American’s hippie central. Josh Brolin, however, does a fine job as Supervisor Dan White, Milk’s primary political opponent — a Catholic who finds himself backed into a corner in a changing political climate, and out-politicked by Milk’s chicanery. Here, White is a weak but sympathetic figure, and the pathos Brolin brings to the role is critical in adding an even-handedness to Van Sant’s telling.
On balance, the talent and dedication on hand here far outweigh any carping about Black and Van Sant’s biases. The film is as much a joy to watch as it seems it was to make. It’s filled with so much vitality, charged by the filmmaker’s inner conviction to bring this story to the screen, that one comes away admiring the filmmaking while feeling deeply touched, even inspired, by the fiery life at the film’s center.
Directed by: Gus van Sant
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O’Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel, Brandon Boyce
Runtime: 130 min.