Milk is brash, opinionated, in your face politically, yet utterly charming — not unlike its subject, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. The film necessarily has a tragic ending, because Milk’s political career, after a late-blooming beginning and several false starts, was a brief series of meteoric successes that lasted less than a year before he was assassinated. Yet the movie is not a downer – it’s an exhilarating entertainment. After several deliberately abstract and “difficult” movies like Elephant and Gerry and Last Days, fascinating and brilliant but hardly seen outside film festivals, Gus Van Sant here makes a triumphant return to something like the Hollywood mainstream.
When some of us heard that Sean Penn had been cast as Harvey Milk, we were a bit puzzled and skeptical. This often sullen and sometimes scenery-chewing star, with his macho persona, seemed like a less than perfect fit. But we were dead wrong. Not only is Penn utterly brilliant — after seeing him, it’s hard to imagine another actor in the part. The rush he obviously gets from taking on this terrific role is contagious, and he casts quite a charismatic spell.
Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (best known before now as a writer and producer of HBO’s Big Love series, drawing on his own Mormon background) manage to turn Milk into an epic about the modern gay rights movement, and somehow, thankfully, they avoid being grandiose about it. At the beginning there is a montage of men being busted at gay bars in the 1950s and 1960s. The ending recreates in an extraordinarily moving way the huge San Francisco candlelight procession that followed Milk’s murder in 1978. Throughout, real historical footage (and apparently some new footage treated to match the real stuff) is intercut with the vividly written and acted dramatizations that are front and center. The effect is to make the issues and events startlingly clear and potent: this is history happening before our eyes.