written by Dustin Lance Black
directed by Gus Van Sant
Starring: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsh, Diego Luna, Allison Pill, Victor Garber, Lucas Grabeel and Joseph Cross
Confession time: I don't like biopics. I actively loathe them sometimes, with a few very select exceptions. Don't they always seem a bit formulaic? I mean, seriously, what did we learn from La Vie en Rose that we couldn't have learned from Walk the Line or Ray or (going back even further) The Rose (if you consider that a biopic, which I do). Isn't the story the same? Singers come from humble beginnings, stumble along the way, get involved in drugs, and either break free or remain ensnared? What about films like A Beautiful Mind or Nixon or (yawn...) More of the same. That is why Milk is such a breath of fresh air. It will make convertees out of the biopic naysayers. It announces itself early on, proudly and unapologetically gay and gay and gay. This is a gay movie about the beginnings of the fight for gay rights, pioneered by one very charismatic, very courageous and very openly gay leader--Harvey Milk. None of this "this is a film about people. This is a film about human rights." Wrong. I mean, yes, I suppose it is, but that's missing the point and only further goes to obscure the issue. Harvey Milk wouldn't have wanted the film classified that way. He would have said, loudly and proudly, "this is a gay film." Those who say yes, welcome. And those who in all of their bigotry and single-mindedness dare to say no can go home and watch the world pass you by. This film is gay and it isn't making any apologies, nor should it. This is the film Gus Van Sant set out to make. The result is his best work in many years (possibly since Drugstore Cowboy) and one of the best (if not the best) performance of Sean Penn's career.
The film begins with Harvey Milk (Penn) meeting cute with Scott Smith (James Franco) in New York City on his birthday. He's about to turn forty, working in the insurance business, and still very much closeted. The two meet, make love and talk about life and making a difference. They run away to San Francisco together, where they try to open a business and are met with opposition and discrimination due to their sexual orientation. This sparks Harvey Milk's decision to go into politics. A decision that changed history. Dustin Lance Black (staff writer for HBO's "Big Love") weaves a taut and concise screenplay, focusing on the important moments in Milk's life. His love affair with Smith, which was strained by his political career. His subsequent tryst with an unstable young man named Jack (Diego Luna) and his recruitment of such young activists like Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) Dick Pabitch (Joseph Cross) and Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill). It also chronicles the beginning of his struggle with fellow San Francisco city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), his would be assassin. Van Sant's handling of the material is restrained and sensical, yet artful at the same time. Despite the gay subject matter, which will admittedly turn some people off, this is probably one of Van Sant's more accessible films, stylistically speaking.
Regarding Sean Penn, his portrayal of Harvey Milk is one of studied perfection. If you've watched archival footage of Milk speaking (watch "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk"), you will notice how close attention Sean Penn paid to the details. But he also goes beyond the Capote and Ray Charles-esque mimicry that so easily impresses and passes for greatness these days. He makes Harvey Milk into his own fully realized creation, completely losing himself in the role, and understading the character inside and out. The film also boasts great supporting performances from Emile Hirsch (probably most surprising. I was very skeptical initially when I heard he was playing Cleve Jones) and James Franco who reduces Scott Smith to alternate moments of empathetic smolder and twinkled-eyed optimism. Franco is actually perfect for the role of Scott Smith, as Penn is for Harvey Milk. They look at one another, from the first meeting in the Manhattan subway tunnel, to every glance shared in the movie, and it is clear why they love one another. Sean Penn as Milk is warm and inviting, loving and accepting. And Franco's Smith is alight with promise and adoration, with one of those smiles that causes his entire face to smile. Initially, many pundits singled out Josh Brolin as a probable contender for a supporting actor Oscar. He is serviceable and impressive, building on his ever more impressive resume, but his work impresses the least here. This is, at last, a biopic that feels relevant. The death of Harvey Milk at the end of the film hangs in the air, the tragedy so thick you can almost taste it, much like Propostion 8's passing. But, it is not an ending. It is beginning. A win is possible.
The release of Milk has been raising questions about whether it could have affected the outcome of the Proposition 8 referendum in California had it been released earlier. Obviously it's a question that can't be answered, but I offer a stern "no" as a short reply. A film like Milk has a built-in audience. The type of person who needs to be swayed into voting no on Prop 8 will not see, nor will they be persuaded by a film like Milk. As pessimistic as it sounds, I do not think there is any help for a person that thinks that homosexuals aren't entitled to the same civil rights as other Americans. I'm sick of this whole, "we want to marry, we want to love" crap. That's so not the point. How about this? Homosexuals deserve the right to marry, for WHATEVER reason they choose, the same way that straight people can and do get married for any number of reasons, some beautiful and flowery, some bullshit. The arguments against always start the same. "I have no problem with homosexuals." Bull. Shit. It's a qualifier. I noticed a number of fanboys who enjoyed Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar movies. I've heard way too many times than I care to admit, some variation on the sentiment "Neil Patrick Harris is awesome, even if he is gay." As if gay is some kind of malignancy that underwrites all other good qualities. As if gay itself is a possible deal-breaker weighing down an otherwise good person. It's offensive. There is no separate but equal and Milk, both the film and the man make that powerfully clear. This is one of the best films of the year, and is certain to be a best picture nominee and it could bring home the win (knock on wood.) But make no mistake Tony Curtises and Ernest Borgnines of the increasingly irrelevant, dying off old generation of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. This is a gay film. If you don't like it, then fuck off and go home. I hear Birth of a Nation is on Turner Classic Movies.