Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician elected to public office in the United States, so it’s fitting that the long-in-the-works movie based on his life, Milk, has been directed by an openly gay filmmaker, Gus Van Sant, who doesn’t spend much time wringing his hands about depicting homosexuality onscreen.
Milk is all of five minutes old, in fact, before we see Sean Penn and James Franco locked in an open-mouth kiss that would make the boys from Brokeback Mountain blush. Van Sant purposely gets this stuff out of the way early, because Milk isn’t about being gay, but about a man’s political crusade to make sure being homosexual did not equate to being carted off in paddy wagons, as we see in the newsreel snippets that open the movie.
In his sunniest, most charismatic performance in recent memory, Penn plays Milk as an easygoing, compassionate man who, at the age of 40, moves to San Francisco in 1972 with his partner (Franco) and opens a camera shop in the city’s Castro district. Soon, he’s greeted by a fellow business owner who tells him “There’s man’s law and there’s God’s law in this neighborhood, and the San Francisco Police Department are happy to enforce both.”
The script by Dustin Lance Black uses that incident as the impetus for Milk’s political career: He was defeated three times before he earned a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. The movie is framed by an audio recording Milk made on Nov. 18, 1978, to be played on the event of his assassination (which came to pass only a few days later) in which he admits “almost everything I did was with an eye on the gay movement.”
Milk and his growing nucleus of supporters (including Emile Hirsch as a brash street urchin and Alison Pill as one of the only people on his staff with actual campaign experience) are portrayed as an inseparably tight family driven not by the need to win, necessarily, but to get their message across and let the rest of the world know they were there.
Van Sant pays careful attention to period detail (including one of the most impressive collection of sideburns ever gathered in a feature film) and historical accuracy (the movie makes copious use of archival footage) to show the cultural significance of Milk’s career and accomplishments. He has also set aside the near-experimental style of his previous few films (Paranoid Park, Last Days), making this his most accessible picture since Finding Forrester.
The director’s compassion for his characters extends to not just Milk and his staff, but also to their detractors, including fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), whose career stumbles as Milk’s soars. White eventually worked out his frustrations in a tragically violent manner, but Van Sant refuses to demonize him. That gives the film’s overriding message of acceptance and equality a lot more power, illustrating how prejudice and intolerance can provide an outlet for people who otherwise don’t know how to deal with their inner rage.
As good as it is depicting his career, Milk doesn’t fare quite as well as a portrait of the man himself. Milk’s relationship with a flighty young Hispanic man (Diego Luna) makes little sense, since you wonder how such an intelligent, driven man could even tolerate such an annoying, whiny partner. But Milk is an unapologetically political film, and an uncommonly moving one at that, especially considering the prominence gay issues had at the polls earlier this month. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Phil, Victor Garber
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenwriter: Dustin Lance Black
Producers: Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen
A Focus Features release. Running time: 128 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, brief violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura; in Broward: Gateway.