In a year marred by the electoral victories of anti-gay ballot measures such as Florida’s Amendment 2 and California’s Proposition 8, Gus Van Sant’s stunning, immensely moving “Milk” stands out as both a measured response against these hate-filled initiatives and as a character study of Harvey Milk, the country’s first “out and proud” politician elected to public office. “Milk” easily transcends its genre – that of the often-stale biopic – and is the spectacular rendering of a life cut short by bigotry.
The first time we see Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a mild-mannered insurance salesman from New York, he picks up Scott Smith (James Franco) in a subway station without much effort. The two move to the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, and seeing the lack of representation in local government for the city’s growing number of gay residents, runs for the Board of Supervisors numerous times until he is elected. Upon his victory in 1977, Harvey Milk became a force to be reckoned with, allying with Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) and leading the charge against Proposition 6, a measure that would have removed all homosexual and homosexual-supporting teachers from California schools. In November 1978, both Milk and Moscone were assassinated by Dan White (Josh Brolin), one of Milk’s colleagues on the Board.
Sean Penn is an actor with a long history of powerful performances, but his Harvey Milk is easily the best of his career. He imbues the character with a certain sweetness but never innocence, and he easily manipulates his supporters – the put-upon residents of the Castro looking for a leader – without ever taking advantage of them. Penn’s emotional intensity and utter restraint contribute to a stunning performance that never descends into an exercise in vanity, nor does he ever simply “play gay.”
Josh Brolin’s Dan White is his second strong performance of the year, coming on the heels of his pitiable George W. Bush in W. White’s gradual descent into madness is obvious, and Brolin’s performance is one of quiet desperation. James Franco also gives the finest performance of his career thus far as Milk’s lover and campaign manager. Victor Garber and Denis O’Hare, two criminally under-appreciated stage-trained actors, give outstanding performances as Mayor George Moscone and California State Senator John Briggs. Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Brandon Boyce, Howard Rosenman, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, and Lucas Grabeel (in his first role post-”High School Musical”) also give nuanced performances, but Penn’s Milk is the center around which all others orbit. Penn is the unabashedly the star of the film without being overbearing, and his performance is a masterwork.
There is not one part of “Milk” that seems forced or unnatural. Van Sant effortlessly recreates the San Francisco of the 1970s down to the minutest detail, and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay is utterly prescient.
“Milk” never tries to keep the titular figure’s tragic, untimely death a secret: the film starts with real footage of Stonewall Riots of the early 1960s and Milk’s assassination, yet “Milk” never exploits that sense of foreboding or dread. Instead, Gus Van Sant chooses to celebrate the titular character’s life. “Milk” is a fitting testament to the legacy that Harvey Milk left behind, one of activism and commitment to equality and human rights for all, two things that certainly did not die with the man itself. The difficulty that both Amendment 2 and Proposition 8 had passing go to show that Milk’s legacy will never die.