Screenwriters: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna
Running Time: 128 mins
Race riots had begun to change the face of America in the '60s, but in the '70s the election of a gay man to public office was still enough to cause an uproar in San Francisco. The assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978 made him a martyr to the gay rights movement, but this film portrait by Gus Van Sant also draws a compelling picture of a man whose idealism would not be defeated. In the title role, Sean Penn manages to balance that romantic side of Milk's nature with an unwavering strength and pragmatism, notching up yet another tour de force in screen acting.
An air of foreboding creeps in quietly at the start as Milk sits alone in his kitchen, shortly before the assassination, and tape-records a statement to be aired in the event of his death. He is acutely aware of the danger that lurks on every corner of the Castro - the working class neighbourhood that is gradually transformed into a gay enclave - but outdoors he presents a smiling face, seeming to charm his way through life. Flashing back to the early '70s, the first to fall under Milk's spell is Scott Smith, an affable young slacker (the evermore versatile James Franco). A casual encounter, sensitively played by both men, leads to them moving in together.
Their open displays of affection don't sit well with the locals, and Milk's frustration with that, along with an encroaching mid-life crisis, spur him to do something about it. That begins a series of failed runs for a seat at City Hall and the mounting of intense reaction towards him. He is as much loved as reviled, but in either case he responds with dignity and disarming humour. Penn clearly relishes this facet of Milk's personality, cracking jokes at his own expense and campaigning with the risqué slogan, "My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!" No wonder his rivals take him with a pinch of salt, but all this belies a steely determination. Milk burns the midnight oil and tirelessly courts the city bigwigs to the detriment of his home life.
Unfortunately for Milk, and for us, Scott walks out but remains a fixture even after Diego Luna latches on to Harvey, playing a junior drama queen who strays close to insane. That alters the tempo of the story for a while, at first seeming frivolous and distracting, but it does add to Milk's growing sense of isolation. After chopping his hippy locks and donning a suit, he finally gets his seat on the city's Board of District Supervisors. Of course it's lonely at the top, and his new love becomes a liability as he struggles to get his fellow supervisors onside. Josh Brolin delivers an impressively complex performance in a supporting role as Dan White, already ensconced at City Hall and switching between friend and rival to Milk depending on the stakes.
A staunch ally is found in Emile Hirsch on wisecracking form as Cleve Jones, another of the city's pot-smoking deadbeats who is transformed into a political dynamo by Milk's belief in him. Penn is utterly convincing as that shining beacon of optimism but the film itself, rather aptly, refuses to fit the glossy studio norm of triumph-of-the-will stories. In the hands of Van Sant (who also dealt with rebel souls in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho), this is a gritty, documentary-like treatment that incorporates archive footage to give the action a raw, bristling energy. Even scenes of conversation feel excitingly off-the-cuff. There is a powerful feeling that anything could happen and it's that brazen advance into uncharted territory, embodied by Penn, that makes Milk such a crowd-pleaser.
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