I'm not sure what is more sad: politician Harvey Milk's life being cut short by an assassin's bullet, or the recent passing of California's reprehensible Prop 8, making it seem this man's death may have been in vain.
Sean Penn inhabits the lead role in Milk, and through him we can see just how magnetic a man the San Francisco candidate was and how easy it must have been to warm to his cause.
But Penn does not lionize the man, unafraid to show his fears, doubts, and flirtation with hubris as his voice begins to reverberate across the state and the nation. To see Penn, who often appears pensive and prickly on talk shows and in public of late, return to the type of performance that is sweet, sensitive, and thoroughly endearing is rewarding enough. But he is surrounded by thoughtful, passionate performers who all seemed so moved by Milk's legacy they were determined to do him justice.
Harvey Milk arrives in San Fran at the start of the swingin' '70s, frustrated and ready to start his life anew as he approaches his 40th birthday. It is there he bumps into his partner Scott Smith (played by James Franco), and they embark on their journey from small camera shop owners to activist organizers helping to reshape the cultural landscape of California.
Where Milk separates itself from other gay-themed mainstream films is that it presents its characters as peers. Films like Brokeback Mountain and Jeffrey were more about allowing the lifestyle to exist in its own little vacuum, if not truly accepting these individuals as equals in every sense of the word. Director Gus Van Sant does this by presenting us with the leads' sexuality in the first few minutes of the film. Penn and Franco tango in an intimate encounter signifying the same electricity all relationships share in the first stage.
Soon after, it settles into the same banality and common day-to-day exchanges all couples shift into, except theirs is one that faces constant tumult outside their own happy domicile — fear, anger and hate await them at every public demonstration of their affection toward one another. It's as if to say to skeptical, straight audience members, "See, this lifestyle you so fear can be just as mundane as yours, but contains no less love within it."