MilkDirected by Gus Van SantStarring Sean Penn, James Brolin, James Franco and Emile HirschRated R*7*
Goes well with: Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, My Own Private Idaho
It's impossible that Gus Van Sant and the rest of the crew behind Milk, the new biopic about America's first openly gay elected official, could have known that Proposition 8 would rear its head so close to the film's opening. But because of the way things timed out, it's also impossible, especially in California, not to view Milk through the filter of discrimination that we recently made law. The tale of Harvey Milk is the story of gay rights in this country, and the film celebrates his life, his successes and losses and his legacy. It's encouraging, certainly, to see how far gay rights have come since 1978, when Milk was assassinated by his onetime political rival, Dan White, but it reminds us, too, that we still have a way to go.
Sean Penn plays Milk, and he delivers yet another typically tremendous performance. His Milk is charming and funny, the sort of politician for whom you want to vote. But he's also very human, making bad choices in love and occasionally manipulating the masses to sustain his own popularity. We're used to Penn as that wiry, intense guy, but here, Penn's physicality makes the character. He feels small and slight, a fighter up against much bigger people. You sense that Penn reveres Milk, an important figure whose name recognition has diminished with time. It's the sort of performance that will likely earn Penn another Oscar nomination.
Josh Brolin is also great as Dan White, the man who pulled the trigger, felling both Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. This marks three roles for Brolin, also in W and last year's No Country for Old Men, where he creates men who aren't deep thinkers. It's an interesting niche—these guys aren't dumb (well, aside from the president, that is), but they achieve success despite a lack of intellectual curiosity. His name isn't being bandied around as a possible award candidate, but it should be, because he makes Dan White deeply complex, a victim of his own inabilities as a politician.
But for all the talk about it being a Best Picture possibility, Milk isn't perfect. The movie teeters now and again on the melodramatic, and when it gets to the supporting roles, it tries to get cute. There are some corners cut for dramatic effect—it's one thing to let us know that Milk received death threats, but it's another for his handlers to tell him he's just received one moments before he goes onstage in front of a roaring crowd. Conversations that should happen in confidence occur during photo ops. Worst of all, Emile Hirsch, as activist Cleve Jones (who consulted on the film), is terrible. Sure, his part is poorly written, and sure, he's one of Penn's favorite actors. But in Milk, you feel like he's just acting gay, which is entirely different than acting like a person who is gay.
But the real meat of Milk is in the story of Proposition 6, the 1978 initiative that would have fired all gay California teachers and any school employee who even supported gay rights. Milk led the fight against Prop. 6, and even though it was up in the opinion polls, voters soundly defeated it on Election Day. That battle is the film's important part, because most of us barely remember those events. It's too bad—for supporters of gay marriage—that Milk didn't hit screens a month ago, because it's so evident that Prop. 8's passage is simply an extension of the battle Milk fought and won. But collectively, we have short memories. It's three decades later, and though we have elected an African-American as president of the United States, we still can't seem to see all of our citizens as separate and equal. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.