Rating: 3.5 stars
When Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) moved to San Francisco’s Castro district in the early ’70s, he had no desire to become a politician. He had just come out of the closet, had a dishy new boyfriend (James Franco), and was simply content to open a modest camera store and live a quiet life. Politics found him—first when the neighborhood business association refused his membership because he was gay, and later, when his camera shop became an ad hoc gathering place for the neighborhood’s young gay men, many of whom had been kicked out of their own homes.
Milk had an antic charisma, a deeply honed sense of justice, and a way of making all people—gay or straight—feel at ease in his presence. He was also smart enough to recognize the power of numbers. If the gay men organized, their buying and voting power could not be denied. He would be their organizer.
Gus Van Sant is the perfect man to direct the story of Milk’s ascension. As he proved in such films as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, he excels at depicting the grungy, makeshift, but vital communities created by marginalized young men. Under his direction, the vibrancy of Milk’s camera shop as gathering place, surrogate home, town hall, and political headquarters is palpable.
All the denizens of the camera shop do excellent work, especially Franco as Scott, the boyfriend who loves Milk but doesn’t want to share him quite so much; Emile Hirsch, as Cleve Jones, a smart-ass teenage hustler turned valuable political ally; and Allison Pill as shrewd campaign advisor Anne Kronenberg, the only XX-chromosome member of Milk’s team.
As for Penn, it’s great to see him play a part that requires a looseness and joy. Penn is definitely one of those actors who equates solemnity with depth, but that wasn’t Milk’s way. He was a livewire, an optimist, a people person—Penn relaxes into the part, it’s his most enjoyable work in years.
As most people already know, the story of Milk ends tragically. He was assassinated, along with the mayor of San Francisco, by a desperate and paranoid colleague, played with slow burn intensity by Josh Brolin (what a year he’s having!).
Senseless as Milk’s ending may’ve been, Van Sant and Penn wisely chose to make a film that is more celebration than wake. And of course, Milk’s timing is eerily prescient: Not only does it focus on a groundbreaking leader with unsurpassed political gifts (sound familiar?), but, in light of the Prop 8 ruling in California, it poignantly points out how far Milk’s message still needs to go.