Milk (2008)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Gaber, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel
  • Director: Gus Van Sant
  • Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black
  • Length: 128 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.

How do you make a biopic about an openly gay politician seeking election and his resultant assassination? Get someone who knows the subject well to write the screenplay, then attach director Gus Van Sant and actor Sean Penn to pull off one of the year’s best transformations.

It is said that Penn rarely smiles and is seldom as jovial as the character of Harvey Milk (watch any awards show and you’ll see how minimally happy he always seems to be), the real life San Francisco business owner who gets elected to local office and becomes the beacon of hope for generations of homosexuals through, but here we have Penn giving it a full performance of depth and character that few actors of his generation could attempt successfully.

The story follows Milk as he moves to San Francisco with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) and sets up a small photo store from where he would launch several unsuccessful attempts at getting elected. He’s always promising Scott that if he loses once more, he’ll quit, but that day never comes and finally, after their relationship has ended and he’s moved on to the suicidal and clingy Jack Lira (Diego Luna), he finally makes his name in politics and gets elected a City Supervisor.

There, he meets his future assassin, a former police officer and firefighter and now a fellow supervisor named Dan White (Josh Brolin), and makes a number of conciliatory overtures that were often rebuffed after Harvey refuses to help Dan with one of his core objectives.

Penn has become something of a testament to his acting generation. Much like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson before him, Penn has become one of the shining lights of modern film acting. In Milk, he successfully blends all those great aspects with a humanitarian sensibility that help his character soar to places where few actors could have taken it. His mannerisms and appearance are startlingly familiar without being caricatured.

Franco does quite well as Milk’s paramour and even when he appears late in the film, there’s still an emotional connection between the two that might have disappeared at the hands of other filmmakers. Brolin is solid as assassin Dan White and Luna is a bit outlandish, but fittingly so, as the paranoid Jack.

Then there are further minor characters played well. Alison Pill is wonderful in an all-too-brief role as Anne Kronenberg, a lesbian activist and Harvey’s successful campaign manager. Theatre veteran Victor Garber is a welcome addition to the cast. And Joseph Cross as Dick Pabich, one of Milk’s campaign staff, is quietly effective, though with very little to do.

Emile Hirsch, who appears as Cleve Jones, one of Harvey’s supporters and a future gay rights advocate, doesn’t feel very important to the film. The founder of the Names Project and its Memorial Quilt gained his influence from Milk and the character is given sufficient purpose in the film, as a symbol of what Milk’s courage and force of presence was able to engender in others. However, something about Hirsch in the film doesn’t feel right to me, although I can’t quite put my finger on why.

In the closing scenes of the film where Dan White makes his way from Mayor Moscone’s office to Harvey Milk’s, killing each, the final scene with Milk staring out the office window at the theater across the street is poignant and evocative, thanks mainly to Danny Elfman’s quiet yet efficient score.

Milk is framed by a tape-recorded message about his belief that he would eventually be assassinated and what would come after such an event. When the film opens, the device is of questionable merit, but as the story progresses and the film resolves, it becomes an interesting and integral part of that story. It’s in the quote “if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door” that the films entire meaning comes into focus. It is a celebration of life and success, and the pursuit of opened doors and broken barriers akin.

Twenty years after Milk’s assassination, it’s hard to believe that gay rights activists are still fighting for equal treatment under the law. And, falling on the heels of the passage of California’s Proposition 8, Milk gains significant added relevance and will hopefully, like the subject of the film, act as another bullet in the closet doors that gays use to protect themselves from a world of hate and which are often placed in the way of those who seek to make something of themselves.