I remember when I first heard that there was a movie called Milk coming out, I had a hard time trying to think of what a movie with that title could possibly be about. Obviously, I had never heard of Harvey Milk. Then I saw the trailer and thought it looked interesting, if a bit overbearing. The use of the giant letters on the white screen punctuated by music just grated on me. Plus, I have never been much of a Sean Penn fan. Sure, there is no denying that he is a quality actor but there is something about the way he carries himself in the real world that just makes him seem like someone I would rather not be associated with. Still, the cast was intriguing and the man certainly seemed like the right subject for a biopic.
So, off I went with a tray of pretzel bites (that never last long enough) and a big bottle of water into the darkened theater. I sat there with a decent sized crowd as the lights dimmed and the movie began. It was not long before a realization immediately came to me. This movie may not be the best of its kind, but it was certainly made by someone who was deeply invested in the subject. Director Gus Van Sant is an openly gay (whatever that is exactly supposed to mean — does he wear a sandwich board announcing his sexuality?) filmmaker with a proven track record with such films as Good Will Hunting, To Die For, My Own Private Idaho, and Drugstore Cowboy to his credit (of course there is also the Psycho remake in there too). I am not sure there is another "name" director that would be right for the project.
I do not consider Van Sant to be an incredible director, nor a visionary one, but there is always a sincerity to his films that shines through and Milk is no exception. It is his passion combined with that of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and star Sean Penn that injects this movie with an energy that draws the audience in, captivating them with this compelling portrait of a man whose influence may not be immediately known by the populace at large but it is one whose ripples are certainly still felt, despite the recent passage of California's Prop 8.
The movie opens with Harvey Milk (Penn) in New York City on the cusp of his fortieth birthday, lamenting the fact that he has not accomplished anything of real import in his life while he hides his sexuality from those around him. In this moment he has made the decision not to hide any longer as he meets Scott Smith (James Franco), a young man with whom he will embark on a long-running relationship.
The two move to San Francisco and open up a small camera shop. This shop becomes something of a base of operations as Milk gets involved in local politics, speaking for gay and minority rights and organizing the community against the violence brought down by those such as the very police charged with the protection of the public trust. This activism, which employed a personal bullhorn and a box labeled "SOAP," led to a run for public office, which initially met with defeat, but held promise for the future.
After a few years of hardship on the campaign trail, he finally won a position as city supervisor. It was a hard fought, well-deserved victory, but not one without its cost. It cost him his relationship with Scott, for one. From this position he is more able to bring about real change.
I am not going to go into the story too deeply so as not to defeat the purpose of actually seeing it. It is an involving story of love, life, and the pursuit of happiness. It is also a story of a flawed man whose life was consumed with the mission he set himself on that brought hardship on himself and many of those around him.
Like any biography told on the big screen, Milk is not without its faults. Just try to compress a man's life, or even just a few years as done here, into a two-hour movie. I am sure you will find the task to be more difficult than you would imagine. The first thing to do is to pull out the extraneous pieces and focus in on the bullet points, then slowly build upon those bullet points a narrative that will hold together and make sense. This is not a documentary, but it does hit those bullet points in style. Unfortunately much of the flavor that surely filled his life has been stripped away leaving just the zest. Good but not great.
What helps push the film closer to greatness is the performance of Sean Penn. Yes, he does a fantastic job. Whether or not it is mere mimicry of the man I do not know, but he brings a warmth and passion that is captivating. Frankly, it has been a long time since I have seen Penn be warm and inviting on the screen. It appears that he truly has a passion for the role.
Not to be outdone, the supporting cast that includes James Franco, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, and Alison Pill does a fine job of bringing increased life to Harvey through those around him. Then we have Josh Brolin, an actor whose career has been on the rise over the past couple of years, playing Dan White, a fellow city supervisor whose life would become forever entwined with Harvey's. Brolin is fascinating in his portrayal of a man under intense pressure who reaches a breaking point.
Dustin Lance Black does admirable work condensing Milk's life into a two-hour feature, while also putting some of the ridiculous beliefs that the far right held and believed as fact. However, through it all the humanity of those involved shine through in Black's words. That is what matters, the humanity behind it all.
Bottom line. Behind the obvious passion of the creative team, the memorable performance from Sean Penn, and the real world impact of the story, Milk is a movie well worth spending your time with.