Directed by: Gus van Sant
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch
Biopics may be one of the trickiest genres to pull off successfully. This is because they are probably some of the most over made, over praised films made today. It’s also because you need to tell an honest story that shows your subject’s dark side, but you also need to have some deep connection with them as well. Gus van Sant’s Milk is so refreshing not because it redefines the biopic, but because it raises the bar impeccably, almost impossibly, high.
Thanks to a terrific cast led by Sean Penn’s bone-deep performance, a deservedly Oscar-winning screenplay from Dustin Lance Black, and van Sant’s film making moxy and deep connection to the material, Milk flies on the wings of creative passion.
This being said, it is not a perfect film. If not for Penn’s incredible acting, Harvey Milk would almost be a two dimensional character. It’s dangerous to have such a kind human being be the subject of a biopic. Nothing against the kind, but they can be boring. Luckily, Penn is a live wire, and lets us see the mischievous politician behind Milk’s crowd-pleasing rebellion. His total immersion in the role earned him his second Best Actor Oscar of the decade, and he totally deserved it.
Lance Black’s screenplay wisely stays away from the “life story.” Instead, he stages it around Harvey’s awakening to his homosexuality with Scott (James Franco), and as an extention his awakening to the injustice towards them in 70’s San Francisco. Because of this Milk feels unlike most biopics, and carries a real urgency with it.
After seeing and hearing about the discrimination towards the gay population, Harvey decides to run for City Council. He becomes the first openly gay politician in U.S. history, and the film actually makes you feel his triumphs and loses. Emile Hirsch is excellent as a snarky, determined leader of his campaign. When he leads a protest down the road, van Sant’s direction and Hirsch’s performance fuse with the crowd to actually take you to the time period. It’s incredible to witness.
Much was made out of Josh Brolin’s performance in the film. He received the Best Supporting Actor nomination out of so many other worthy performances in the film, and he does do an excellent job as Milk’s “family values” opponent Dan White. White shows up drunk at Harvey’s birthday party, and Penn and Brolin make you feel the desperation and the secrets. Toward the end, when White descends upon the government building with murder on his mind, the camera follows him expertly. It’s a terrifically filmed scene, despite it’s tragedy.
In the end, Milk is about the struggle for equality. It makes no quips about which side it’s on, and for that it can be called a true political film. It’s not so much a persuasive essay as it is a humanizing force behind the movement it sympathizes with. In that endeavor, it is completely successful. Van Sant is a true film visionary, recreating a turbulent time period and an extraordinary life with a little help from his friends.