Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) is making a tape recording, leaving an audio history of his life, in the event his life should be taken. He sits in his dark kitchen and begins to recount the key moments in his life.
Thus begins "Milk", the new film from director Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting", "My Own Private Idaho") and writer Dustin Lance Black. Van Sant has assembled a great cast who work together to bring us the life story of this ground breaking politician.
And Sean Penn is nothing short of amazing in this role. He brings Milk alive and makes his relationship with his two boyfriends, Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Luna) believable. The story opens with Milk spotting Scott Smith in the New York subway. Milk is clearly attracted to the young man sporting a wild bush of hair and asks him to help him celebrate his birthday with him. Smith recognizes a glimmer of something special in the older man and agrees; Milk should not have to celebrate his birthday alone. Later, in bed, Milk mentions that he is upset he hasn't accomplished anything great in his life. He also mentions that he probably won't live to see 50. They move to San Francisco and end up in the Castro. During this time, gay men are regularly rounded up by the police, beaten and jailed, so Milk decides to do something about it. He uses his small camera shop as a campaign headquarters are recruits a group of gay male activists to aid him in his quest to make change. Scott is initially very helpful in the fight, but as Milk loses one election after another, he begins to feel neglected. Eventually, they break up and Milk finds himself attached to Jack Lira (Diego Luna), an emotionally unstable young man who would prefer to be attached at the hip to his new lover. And it seems to excite Jack that Harvey is in the public's eye, garnering attention. Eventually, Milk is elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Dan White (Josh Brolin) joins him in the same capacity, looking out for his very different constituents. Anita Bryant is leading a successful campaign against homosexual rights in Florida. When the voters pass the bill, she moves on to other states. Harvey decides he wants to bring Anita to California, and fight her on his home turf. While all of this is going on, White feels powerless and ineffectual and tries to get Harvey to help him pass some bills important to his constituents. Milk wants Dan's support, so he says yes…
At one point, it seems like everyone in Hollywood was attached to the biopic of Harvey Milk. It is an attractive project, providing the right actor with the role of a lifetime; a naturally charismatic leader who wages a fight against people who would rather not extend rights to a large and growing segment of the community, Milk was assassinated just as his political career was starting, essentially martyring him to a large group of people. It is a role that could provide an actor with many dramatic moments, and if portrayed correctly, many funny and romantic moments as well. The biopic has bounced around from one director to the next, one actor to the next. Finally, it landed in the hands of Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn. And it is a match that works. The two men have the right sensibilities, right talents and right maturity to make this film and it shows in every frame. "Milk" is a powerful, moving, emotional, well-made biopic about this famous politician the first openly gay politician whose life was cut too short.
Using a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, a writer and producer on HBO's "Big Love", Van Sant presents a fairly straightforward telling of Milk's life. Despite brief moments of Milk sitting in his kitchen in San Francisco, late at night, recounting the story of his life, the film uses this framing device to go from Point A, when Milk and Smith meet in San Francisco, to Point B, when Dan White, well, you know. In a way, I think this method of presenting Milk's life is particularly appropriate and a good choice. Too often, biopics can be overly romanticized and saccharin and this is a cliché that was rightly avoided in telling the story of the politician's life. Really, it would have been so easy to make him appear a saint and make him appear to be the first Gay martyr. Because the film stays away from this, to a certain degree, it seems more real and life like, more interesting and more capable of remaining in our memories for a long time. I've seen many biopics in my life and it is amazing how many of them are quickly forgotten for these same reasons.
Van Sant is a very good director who seems to have learned from his previous mistakes and gained the maturity necessary to make this film. Again, it is told in a fairly straightforward way and he seems to concentrate on the performances from the actors, helping to coax the best work from them. He has given up on shot-by-shot remakes ("Psycho") and existential landscapes ("Gerry") and returned to the type of film that made him famous in the first place. It was the performances and the screenplay in "My Own Private Idaho" and "Good Will Hunting" that made the public stand up and take notice.
Sean Penn doesn't really look a lot like Harvey Milk (there is a photo of the real Milk at the very end of the film) and this is a good thing. A number of actors who have recently portrayed famous people seem to be going for more of an interpretation of the person they are depicting, rather than a full blown impersonation. Frank Langella's portrayal of Nixon in "Frost/ Nixon" is another recent example. Penn tries to evoke the former politician's life through some mannerisms, some of the politician's catch phrases, he may have even listened to some tapes of the politician to get his accent and vocalizations right. But he eschews a heavy make-up job in favor of a hair style that resembles Milk's, allowing the rest of the performance to come from within. This makes the performance seem all the more natural and real. We aren’t watching Penn impersonate Milk; we are watching him re-create Milk. Langella did pretty much the same thing in his portrayal of Nixon. Both performances are extremely memorable.
But Penn is an actor who tries to give everything he has to a role, becoming consumed in the character, doing everything he can to make the person he is playing jump off the screen. When it works, Penn is unforgettable. In "Milk, it works and Penn seems to become the late politician. From the first moments when he is flirting with Smith, to the later moments when we see how much in love they are, to the moments before their relationship breaks up, we always get a sense that Milk will always care for and love Scott, even if their lives about to move in different directions. As Milk becomes more embroiled in politics, Penn portrays his growing desperation to try to make something happen, because he wants to help people. And when he is finally elected to the Board of Supervisors, after many failed elections, we see Milk's look of calm. Now he can make some changes. He can fight Anita Bryant, he can fight homophobia, he can change the way homosexuals live in San Francisco, California, the United States. But he has to take one step at a time.
Milk is portrayed as a politician; Penn and Van Sant show him as a man intent on making change, but when he is elected to his position, he also recognizes he has to make some concessions, negotiate with others, he has to manipulate other politicians to help get some of the laws he wants passed. One of the people he tries to manipulate is another young politician on the Board of Supervisors, Dan White (Brolin). Showing this aspect of Milk makes him seem more believable because we recognize that most politicians probably face these same types of situations in their careers. It makes Milk seem real and prevents him from becoming a saint.
As Milk is a gay man, his relationships with friends and lovers are depicted. Penn seems to realize that he has to portray this part of the aspect for all of it's worth as well; he can't shy away from making it seem real. If he did, the performance would fall flat and seem phony. So, Penn makes us believe that his Milk is really in love with James Franco's Scott Smith. And later, that he is in a relationship with the emotionally unstable Jack Lira (Diego Luna). There are many men who gravitate towards him and become integral parts of his many campaigns, but perhaps the most interesting is Milk's relationship with Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch). The politician passes Jones' on the sidewalk walking with a group of friends, ready to find the next party, and stops him. Initially, Jones thinks Milk is simply hitting on him, but Milk gets to the point. Your life can be so much more than this. Later, Jones returns to San Francisco and becomes a long-time member of the Milk campaign.
James Franco deserves a lot of credit for diving head first into his portrayal of Scott Smith. We get a real sense of what brings these two men together, what causes them to remain partners for so long. Initially, he is very supportive of Milk's attempts to change society, to win an election, to become something. In fact, he is amazingly supportive and is always there for his partner, providing support, comfort and more when he needs it. But there comes a point when Scott starts to feel neglected and wants some of this attention returned to him. And Milk isn't able to do it because he is too busy fighting for gay rights, fighting Anita Bryant, trying to change things. When Smith realizes Milk will always put the priority on the cause, Franco plumbs the character and shows his inner sadness. He realizes they may be the love of each other's life, but Smith will have to share Milk's love with the causes his partner is so passionate about.
Emile Hirsch is also good as Cleve Jones, a party boy who realizes and recognizes he needs to do something different with his life. In a way, he almost becomes Milk's enforcer, leading the more radical protests, the more outspoken protests, to protect Milk from the recriminations. And their relationship is portrayed well. It is clear that Milk sees Jones as a younger brother and tries to provide him with advice and balance along the way.
Diego Luna's portrayal of Jack Lira seems the most showy and is the most unbelievable because of it. Maybe Lira actually was emotionally unstable and very clingy, but it seems fake and detracts from the film slightly. I have never been in a relationship like this (lucky me) so it is difficult for me to watch such an over the top performance and not find fault in it. I know people do get this crazy when they are in love, but because I have never experienced it, it simply seems over the top. And why does Milk stick around with the guy? It just doesn't work.
Josh Brolin turns in another surprisingly good performance as Dan White, one of Milk's fellow supervisors. When the two characters first appear on screen, an ominous dread permeates. We know what is going to happen, but it is a testament to the actors' skill that we begin to feel these emotions the first time they meet. Brolin simmers quietly throughout, his anger rising minutely, sometimes almost imperceptibly with every slight. White wins the election and then tries to fight for his people, but he can't seem to get anything passed, any laws that might help the people who voted for him. He seeks some help from Milk who wants his support in exchange. White's proposed laws would only help a small portion of the public, so his fellow Supervisors shun him. White invites other members of the Board of Supervisors to his son's baptism, only Milk shows up. And Dan, a fine Irish- Catholic boy with a young wife and a new baby, has a lot of trouble reconciling that Milk is gay and so in your face about it. These problems, and many more, continue to eat away at White throughout the course of the film. Brolin maintains a quiet intensity, showing White's slow realization that he must do something, anything to keep from becoming the most ineffectual public leader in San Francisco. Brolin glowers and gets frustrated, but he doesn't shout or laugh maniacally, keeping the performance low key, interesting and the right match to Penn's happy, involving portrayal of Milk.
Van Sant uses a little archival footage, but it blends seamlessly with the rest and gives us a real portrait of this period in the history of the Gay Rights movement. He also manages to help us understand what Milk was trying to do and provides us with a well-balanced portrait of this iconic leader.
If Sean Penn isn't nominated for an Oscar, something is very, very wrong in Hollywood.