2008. Starring Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin. Directed by Gus Van Sant.
While watching Milk, I felt that I was seeing three stories told by using the same events. There is the biopic story of Harvey Milk, driven by an amazing performance by Sean Penn, telling the story of a 40-year-old New Yorker who realizes that who he is requires a drastic life change. Milk moves with his partner to San Francisco in order to be himself and, once fully becoming himself, finds his calling in city politics, representing the Castro District and, by extension, the gay community.
There’s also the story of the national fight for gay rights, confronting the national bigotry of Anita Bryant and the local bigotry of California politicians. That story dovetails with Milk’s rapid rise as a San Francisco city supervisor. The scenes of organizing the local gay community into a political force are some of the best in this film — really the beginning of a movement that turned victim and scapegoat into citizens and voters. The archival film (including news reports) is an eerie reminder of how very little times have changed. Gays may have defeated Proposition 6 — an accomplishment this film re-creates — but years later are faced with a Proposition 8 that makes the same stale arguments about families, the supposed sanctity of marriage, and even darker slanders some fear equality would bring.
Lastly, there’s the awareness that Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone would eventually be murdered by a colleague. I didn’t remember that the killing wasn’t about Proposition 6 and the gay rights movement, but the actions of a bitter and delusional man who felt marginalized as a politician. The threat of violence can be sensed as soon as the film introduces Dan White (thanks to an understated but strong performance by Josh Brolin), even though Milk faced death threats from other, more anonymous sources.
The script blends these stories well, as Harvey Milk drops out, turns on, gets mad and gets involved. His fight for civil rights seems natural for the character that Penn plays here, impulsive but politically savvy, a leader who can inspire but who is not without his faults. (At one point, he demands that his staff come out to their families and friends, on the spot, to gain support for the legislation.) The Best-Actor Award for Penn was earned — at some points, the well-known actor disappears into his portrayal, and doesn’t hit a false note in two hours.
James Franco, as Milk’s partner, and Emile Hirsch as a street hustler turned political operative are great as well. In an early scene, Milk is trying to register voters on the street as Hirsch’s character walks by, expressing his disinterest. As they banter, Milk keeps drawing his adversary back, to reconsider, to see how he’s already involved and what the stakes are, to plant a seed that will one day produce an activist. It’s such a strong scene, and played with some humor, and made this failed activist feel good about the attempts he made to change the stubborn minds of others.