The story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, is one we probably should have seen in theatres at least 15 or 20 years ago. But the film was stuck in development hell for years, only to finally emerge last year in a near-perfect alignment of the stars.
The combination or Gus Van Sants direction, Dustin Lance Blacks script, Sean Penns Oscar-winning lead performance, and a stellar ensemble cast of supporting players has given us a new exemplar in the genre of political biopic.
It was worth waiting decades for a team this great to come together to make a film worthy of its story.
The film is framed with the device of Milk (Penn) narrating an audio tape to be played in the event of his assassination. His story begins in 1970 in New York. Milk is a closeted gay man who fears that revealing his orientation could cost him his boring white collar job. Cruising for a new lover in the subway he meets Scott Smith (James Franco,) to whom he confesses that night, I'm 40-years-old and I've done nothing with my life.
At Smith's urging the couple moves to San Francisco in the early 70s. In the more counterculture environment Milk comes out of the closet and opens his own business, Castro Camera. When he encounters homophobia from the local business community Milk becomes politically engaged, organizing the neighborhood's gays into a movement that develops political power.
However, Milk finds that there are limits to what activism can accomplish. And so he decides to run for office numerous times as an openly gay candidate. He's aided in these pursuits by Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch,) a former street hustler who, inspired by Milk, shifts to a life of activism. Milk also brings in Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill,) a lesbian, to manage his campaign. As his continued campaigning drives him apart from Smith, Milk finds a new love in the emotionally fragile Jack Lira (Diego Luna.)
Milk's campaigns have a special urgency to them. Across the country religious activists like Anita Bryant are pushing measures that would allow landlords to discriminate against gays. Inspired by her, John Briggs (Denis OHare.) a California state senator, proposes Proposition 6, which would ban gays and anyone who supported them from working in public schools.
In addition to these political challenges Milk finds a rival once he's elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk initially tries to ally with the more conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin) but their attempts to compromise fall apart. Eventually White comes to resent Milk, feelings that will lead to tragedy.
Every piece falls into its perfect place. The script by Black manages to vividly create its cast of characters quickly and effectively. The figures in the campaigns, Jones in particular, have personalities that match and complement that of Milk himself. Luna, Hirsch, and Franco all distinguish themselves in their supporting roles.
One need only consider Penn's previous roles to understand the significance of his recreation of Harvey Milk. At the beginning of his career Penn could go from his star-making turn as stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to the violent juvenile delinquent Mick OBrien in Bad Boys. The 90s would see Penn in acclaimed roles as a death row inmate in Dead Man Walking and a 1930s jazz guitarist in Woody Allens Sweet and Lowdown. With Milk Penn reinvents himself again, disappearing into his role as a charismatic, sweet, funny icon of the gay community.
The script and these performances are carefully crafted and photographed by the confident direction of Van Sant, the ideal director for the project. When Van Sant isnt creating minimalist experiments (Elephant, Last Days) or shot-for-shot reenactments (1998s Psycho,) he can make visually rich dramas with strong characters (Good Will Hunting.)
Milk falls into this last category, and is a film every bit as accessible and almost as satisfying as Good Will Hunting.