Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna,
James Franco, Alison Pill. Rated R.
Having spent much of the new millennium wandering the indie
wilderness with dream-like ruminations on fallen rock stars (Last Days) and dangerously
disaffected youth (Paranoid
Park, Elephant), Gus Van Sant makes a temporary
return to conventional
storytelling with Milk, his
beautiful and powerfully affecting tribute to slain gay rights leader Harvey
Milk, of course, was more than an
activist. As the first openly gay politician elected to public office in
America, the self-appointed Mayor of Castro Street became the
none-too-reluctant face of a movement after moving to The City in 1972. Van
Sant’s biopic traces his career from its somewhat humble beginnings – Milk
opened a camera shop in the Castro shortly after moving to the Bay Area from
his native New York – to its agonizing conclusion in his City Hall office.
Although Milk’s rise to prominence
may have seemed disturbingly swift to those unaccustomed or hostile to the idea
of gay man in office – or, for that matter, out of the closet – he and longtime
partner Scott Smith (James Franco) endured a series of unsuccessful campaigns
before Milk landed on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.
He would serve there for nearly a
year before onetime colleague Dan White murdered him and Mayor George Moscone,
prematurely ending the life of a man who, perhaps most famously, led the
triumphant campaign against Proposition 6, which would have banned gays and
their supporters from teaching in California schools.
While Milk dutifully portrays its titular
hero as a courageous,
groundbreaking activist, it refuses to sugarcoat his brand of shrewd,
take-no-prisoners politics. Milk himself would argue that the end justified the
means, and rightly so. But there was a slightly fickle, self-serving aspect to
his approach that Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (HBO’s Big
Love) do not ignore.
Van Sant treats Milk like a traditional
biopic, but, as with Elephant and Paranoid Park,
there is no concession to melodrama, nor a moment wasted. He presents his story
with an unflinching eye on the factual timeline of Milk’s days in San Francisco,
right down to the moment of jarring violence that ended his life. This is a
movie that could have been maudlin or hagiographic in the hands of a lesser
director, but Van Sant’s minimalist approach serves the material well.
For Sean Penn, who plays Milk,
there will be much clamoring for an Oscar, and deservedly so. Penn seems less
an impersonator of the former city supervisor than a vigorous embodiment. When
he’s not railing against his adversaries – White, California Assemblyman John
Briggs and anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant among them – there is a tenderness,
an endearing sense of humanity in his performance that transcends even the
force of his speeches.