Milk is a moving and important film for our times with a tremendous performance by Sean Penn.
In 1977, Harvey Milk (Penn) was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While this would not normally be an earth-shattering phenomenon, in this case, Milk became the first out-of-the-closet gay person to win a major public office in the United States -- and was assassinated in 1978, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Based in part on the Academy Award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the film focuses on the last decade of his life as he moves from New York at age 40 to San Francisco with lover Scott Smith (James Franco). Using his experience as an entrepreneur as a catalyst, he suddenly becomes more politically involved, making a couple of runs for office and finally getting elected. With a new lover (Diego Luna) and agenda, Milk takes on some major issues -- including lobbying against California's controversial Prop 6, an initiative to fire gay schoolteachers. But his activities anger another supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin), and soon their destinies will collide.
It's not an overstatement to say that Sean Penn's performance here is a revelation. As Harvey Milk, he not only perfectly embodies the late politician but exudes a certain kind of warmness and humor we rarely see from the star. His immersion into the persona of Milk is truly remarkable and winning. A large supporting cast includes: standout performances from Franco, as Milk's true love and friend Scott, who eventually can't compete with Harvey's increasing ambition; Diego Luna, hilarious and annoying as Milk's lover later; and Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, a young activist and Milk protégé. Brolin, as the unlikeable White, perfectly captures the frustration and simmering jealousy the man he feels steals his job. It's a risky role, and there is little room for audience empathy, but Brolin makes this loser understandable, if not acceptable. As the lone woman among the principal players, Alison Pill is bright and appealing, as Milk's campaign manager Anne Kronenberg.
Gus Van Sant's odd directorial career encompasses a series of ups and downs with the highlights being Drugstore Cowboy and his Oscar-nominated work on Good Will Hunting. The absolute nadir of Van Sant's resume is undoubtedly his ill-advised shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's untouchable Psycho. It's nice to report he's back in form now with the warm, funny and moving Milk, a film that doesn't quite escape the clichés of the biopic genre but still finds its own beats, thanks in large part to the piercing performances. Getting such mature and joyful work from Penn, a brilliant but distant actor, is impressive indeed. He also imbues the movie with a documentary feel, appropriate since much of the source material comes from the Oscar-winning docu. Milk paints us a triumphant and inspiring life, one that won't soon be forgotten, especially with its parallels to current California circumstances. The state's recent anti-gay marriage initiative Prop 8 could not have come at a more significant time in making Harvey Milk's crusade seem more relevant than ever.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.