Milk begins with the title character Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) speaking into a tape recorder telling his life story in the event of his assassination. Which turned out to be prophetic: on November 10, 1978, Milk was shot and killed by fellow San Francisco city supervisor Dan White at the age of 48. His biopic, written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Gus Van Sant, is as effective, informative and real as any biopic I have seen over the years.
Only Martin Scorsese could have directed Mean Streets. Only Steven Spielberg could have helmed Schindler’s List. And likewise, only Van Sant could have presented the story of Harvey Milk in the manner it needed to be told. He brings a unique passion from behind the camera but at the same time is careful not to once ever get melodramatic or push anything in our face. In his script, Black includes various anecdotes and provides details that helps not only bring Harvey Milk but the surrounding characters to life.
None of the characters here are caricatures, they are real people. This helps the audience understand the events more personally and feel like they are right there in the Castro when the events of the film are unfolding. Surely it is also pivotal that these characters are played on screen by an astonishingly talented cast. What more is there to say about Sean Penn at this point?
It is almost impossible to believe that the man playing Harvey Milk is the same actor in Mystic River, I am Sam and, yes, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There is a scene in this film where his character breaks down emotionally that is entirely different than his breakdown in Mystic River and other films. A lot of actors only know one way to show anger, sadness and despair. Penn literally becomes a new person in every film. He is a legendary actor.
The supporting turns are all outstanding. James Franco (as Milk’s lover Scott Smith) gives the best performance I have ever seen from him. Franco has a lot of potential and will hopefully be getting more in depth roles from now on. Emile Hirsch, another underrated actor, is great as Cleve Jones, and Josh Brolin who has been on an absolute tear for the last two years (No Country For Old Men, American Gangster, W.), is spot-on perfect as the bigoted Dan White.
Van Sant has been very up-and-down over the years (To Die For and Good Will Hunting being the up and the Psycho remake being the down). With Milk he has surpassed anything he has done before. The costume design is highly accurate and Danny Elfman provides a score that, like Van Sant’s directing, is potent but not over-the-top.
Milk is obviously coming out at a politically relevant time for its subject matter. Despite anyone’s thoughts on the topic and what’s going on nowadays, this is a moving and well-told story. It is as important artistically as it is politically. An absolute must-see.
4 ½ / 5 stars