Gus Van Sant’s latest is another great film for the director and is one of the best biopics in recent memory.
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) was a closet homosexual in New York in the early seventies, picking up men on the Subway, one of which happens to change the direction of his life. Upon picking up Scott Smith (James Franco) on the eve of his fortieth the two bond and decide to move California and settle in the Castro district of San Francisco which was quickly becoming the gay hub of the city. Upon opening their own camera shop, deters to their shop because of their sexual orientation prompt Milk to become politically active at trying to get favorable treatment and rights acknowledged for openly gay people in San Francisco. As he builds his campaign, more and more fresh faces begin coming into his camera store/campaign office, and while originally unsuccessful, Milk quickly becomes one of the most respected voices for the gay cause in San Francisco.
Van Sant’s film is a fairly straight forward biopic, but he tells it with such ease and deft pacing that it is never slow or dragging. I enjoyed learning the history behind this man and it is inspiring to see how he made himself basically from out of nowhere. Milk decided his people needed a change and dedicated the rest of his life to it, and it is a surprisingly unknown story to boot. Van Sant captures the atmosphere of the time through some great production work as well as inter-splicing real news footage with his picture. The script was crafted from interviews with the people that new milk best and you can tell as we really get a picture of who Milk was both in front of a crowd and in private. Van Sant also assembled a fantastic cast, littered with some of the best you male actors working today to help support Sean Penn’s amazing portrayal as Milk.
James Franco’s Scott is the supportive boyfriend for Harvey. He is his campaign manager, lover, and best friend. Franco captures this perfectly and shares many a tender moments with Penn throughout. Franco also does a fine job of capturing the strain and agony the elections are having on Scott and Harvey, without going crazy and blowing things out of proportion which is very impressive as well, to convey those emotions so well with such subtlety. Emile Hirsch is also great as the guy who knows people and one of Milk’s chief campaign advisors and rally organizers. He is the youth and young blood of the organization and is an important asset to Milk and his team. Josh Brolin is brilliant as Dan White, a rival and maybe homophobic councilman that doesn’t quite see eye to eye with Milk on a number of issues. Brolin is on a roll this year and this turn might get him a nomination for on Oscar this year. Diego Luna plays a floozy groupie of sorts to the Milk campaign and he just nails the jealous, borderline obsessed nature of his character. And then there is Sean Penn, who hits another home run as Harvey Milk, capturing the man’s humor, charisma, tenacity, and creates an incredibly inspiring individual. Penn makes you believe in Milk like so many people did during his career, and you understand why he was able to influence the non-gay and potentially homophobic ideals that filled this country during the 70’s.
In the end, Milk is a fantastic biopic, filled with great performances and great filmmaking. The swift two and half hour film never feels slow and the film is full of some of the best performances of the year. A great history lesson into the fight for gay rights is captured in this fantastic portrait of an amazing man’s political career. Go see Milk, you will not be disappointed.