In film, as in life, timing is everything. In a year where Barack Obama became the symbol of progressive change worldwide, Gus Van Sant’s latest film, Milk, show that change often comes at a harsh price. It is also a blistering reminder that in the wake of California’s controversial Proposition 8, that we still have a long way to go in regards to social harmony. Taking place over a period of 8 years, Milk shows Harvey Milk’s ascension from Gay Rights Activist to becoming California’s first openly gay public official.
After moving to San Francisco with his partner Scott (James Franco), Harvey is gets his first taste of activism while battling a local merchant’s association. When Harvey starts to notice local hate crimes are going unpunished, he takes to the streets to get his message out. As Milk’s political aspirations grow bigger, so does the strain of his relationship with Scott. Aided by a dedicated campaign team that includes young activists Cleeve (Emile Hirsch) and media savvy Anne (Alison Pill), Harvey starts to make strides in both the gay and straight communities. Yet Harvey soon realizes that political success comes with several drawbacks. Most notably Dan White (Josh Brolin), a fellow city official whose unstable nature will ultimately lead to the demise of both the Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) and Harvey.
Milk is a biopic that delivers on several levels. I knew nothing about Harvey Milk prior to seeing the film, yet I found myself captivated by this groundbreaking section of his life. The first thing that struck me was that Van Sant, after directing several films where he experimented with form and sound, went back to telling a rather straightforward narrative. This allows you to focus more on the performances rather than the style. Which is a good thing in this case because the performances are stellar across the board. Sean Penn is brilliant as Milk; he not only immerses himself in the character but also forces the supporting players to raise the bar as well. James Franco gives a great subtle performance as Scott. Emile Hirsh brings just the right mix of youthful exuberance and political angst to his role. As Dan White, Josh Brolin skillful peels away the layers of his character to show how White reaches the point he does. Regardless of your stance in terms of gay rights, Milk succeeds at providing an interesting glimpse into the life of a man that fought for what he believed in. While Milk is a fantastic film in its own right, it resonates even more when you look at our current social climate and what it took to get us here.