Release Date: November 28, 2008
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill
By Sean Chavel
Sean Penn makes himself a leading contender for Best Actor for his performance in "Milk," a film about the first gay man to be elected public office in the United States. If you've ever seen Penn interviewed on camera, you might get an immediate dose of how empathetic he is for people of all backgrounds. Penn is a method actor, alright, but he also plugs you into the “humanity” of the people he's playing better than just about anyone else.
So even if you've never seen the “The Times of Harvey Milk,” 1984 Academy Award winner for best documentary featuring the real Milk, you never doubt Penn for putting up his genuine representation for the real thing. Milk is a gregarious individual, a self-pride nerd, and righteous without being pugnacious. He's trying to create widespread acceptance of homosexuality.
His journey begins in the Castro district of San Francisco, where after a few failed attempts as a hippie-politician, transforms into a buttoned-up suit politician who finally gets enough popular appeal – and savvy to convert the disinclined – to get elected onto the board of city supervisors. But Anita Bryant (in documentary footage) sparks an upheaval in the country in her crusade to suppress gay civil rights. Senator John Briggs of California initiates Proposition 6, a statewide measure to ban gay teachers that Milk perceives as the number one violator of gay rights ordinance. But the movie also makes it clear that Milk stood for elderly privileges, education, workers unions, tax waste opposition and racial minorities. Milk wasn't about being a self-gratification showman out to defend only “his” issues.
Director Gus Van Sant's filmmaking is top-class. Instead of paint-by-numbers approach to the biopic, Van Sant implements key visual symbolism that makes sense to complimenting the story. Consider the close-up shot of a silver whistle – it's used as a fight hate crimes against gays – that the director uses as timely advantage to sell his point. Van Sant also uses flash pans, but in slow-motion, to emphasize the strategic progression of a beer company boycott. Van Sant honorably returns to the narrative film with style and technique intact after several consecutive experimental avante-garde films that included “Gerry,” “Elephant,” and “Paranoid Park.”
Direction is almost flawless although the dense details of public policies get lost in the restless and busy conflicts of the script. But the depiction of politics has rarely been treated so maturely in a big-budget film. If there is a rare confused moment in the film, Penn pulls you in anyway. In the most personable details, the film lets you know Milk's assortment of gay friends and lovers. James Franco as first portrayed boyfriend, Emile Hirsch as a street john turned activist, Diego Luna as the insecure last boyfriend (and poorly written character). Josh Brolin (already a likely Oscar candidate for the recent “W.”), as hetero family man Dan White, is another city council member that is colleague and personal antagonist to Milk. Their inflexibility for each other descends into tragedy. Find more aftermath details in the documentary.
The historical appeal is that Milk arrived at a very crucial time. Without him, gay activism might have stifled tremendously. Milk was a Voice, a historically Important Voice, and the filmmakers have brought forward the story to the screen with reverential cause. Will mainstream moviegoers buy into this completely? As long as conservatives can accept Penn in gay love scenes shot in close-up. But Penn's commitment to this character goes beyond kissing. He finds the humility and self-deprecating humor in character that was crucial into making Milk into an enduring public figure in the spotlight.