Biopic breathes life into counterculture crusader
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin
When it comes to Oscar bait, you can’t go wrong with a biopic: Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Jamie Foxx in Ray, Adrien Brody in The Pianist, David Strathairn in Good Night, and Good Luck, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator, Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland, Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, Will Smith in Ali, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, Geoffrey Rush in Quills, Ed Harris in Pollock, Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls. ... And that’s just the Best Actor nominations since 2000.
Given this fact (plus the fact that he’s already been nominated four times), let’s go ahead and assume Sean Penn has got another Academy Award nomination socked up for his exceptional work in the biopic Milk.
Joining Penn on his journey to Oscar night are indie stalwart director Gus Van Sant (Oscar-nominated himself for Good Will Hunting) and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who served as writer and executive story editor on HBO’s “Big Love”). The man of the hour, however, is San Francisco politician Harvey Milk.
Milk is noted in history books (progressive ones, anyway) as the first openly gay elected official in America. He’s also famous for having been assassinated shortly after gaining office. (Even if you’re not familiar with that little fact, it doesn’t count as a spoiler--the film starts off with the announcement of Milk’s murder.) Though Milk’s truncated life story reads like a tragic one, the film version is an ultimately optimistic look at modern civil rights history.
Penn starts out narrating his character’s biography, literally dictating it into a tape recorder in the event of his assassination. (Whether this is artistic license on the screenwriter’s part or eerie prescience on Milk’s part, I can’t say.) Spinning back to early ’70s New York City, we see Milk as a closeted, suit-wearing, East Coast office drone. One of Harvey’s random pickups--blond pretty-boy Scott Smith (James Franco)--results in a long-term relationship, an impulsive relocation to San Francisco and an immersion in California’s growing counterculture movement.
Within a few years, Milk finds himself the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Castro Street.” By serving as spokesperson, defender and model citizen of San Francisco’s burgeoning gay community, Milk becomes one of the city’s most respected activists. By confining itself to a few square blocks that have somehow managed to resist thirty-odd years of gentrification, the film creates an evocative sense of place and time. Van Sant throws in frequent historical footage and old newscasts, further immersing viewers in the turbulent era. Those unaware of the trials and tribulations of the modern gay movement will certainly find themselves enlightened by film’s end.
Eventually, Milk’s liberal social ambitions draw him into the world of politics, where his soft-spoken manner and eloquent speech win him a loyal following. During the late ’70s, American politics were rocked by a series of anti-gay rights initiatives championed by long-forgotten Christian Right crusader Anita Bryant. It is into this frequently unwelcoming atmosphere that Milk ascends to the position of San Francisco city supervisor. While in office, he manages to make a long list of enemies, including straightlaced, blockheaded fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin, making an art out of skewering conservatives between this and W.).
There is an inevitability to the tragedy of Milk, but the film never wallows in the downbeat. Instead, it gently celebrates the spirit of its indefatigable hero. More than just a martyr to the cause of gay rights, Milk was a leader who stepped up when troubled times demanded. Penn gives an extremely lived-in performance, never making his humble hero too showy or ego-driven. Milk was rarely more than the center of a circus that included a great many performers. Milk realizes this, providing an impressive supporting cast to surround Penn. Franco, Brolin, Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) and Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) all give memorable performances, allowing Milk’s philosophy to saturate the film. Milk’s mission wasn’t about one man, it was about a movement. A movement that continues today.
When Van Sant swings and misses, it’s with an audible wiff. (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Psycho and Gerry, I’m talking about you!) But Milk is an elegant construct. After years of experimenting with the experimental, Van Sant returns to the unfussy storytelling of Good Will Hunting. Given the subject, it’s likely to be embraced mostly by specialized audiences. That’s a shame, really. Milk is a timely addition to America’s current political climate--not only to the still-raging debate in California over gay marriage, but to the suddenly de rigueur notion that our political leaders should have the courage to change what’s wrong and the strength to give us hope for the future.