Movie Review: "Milk"

Sean Penn in the captivating portrayal of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk.
Sean Penn in the captivating portrayal of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk. (Focus Features)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Once in a while, a movie arrives at such a perfect moment, its message and meaning so finely tuned to the current zeitgeist, that it seems less a cinematic event than a cosmic convergence, willed into being by a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the stars.

Such are the goose bumps induced by "Milk," Gus Van Sant's vivid, affecting portrait of Harvey Milk, who in 1978 joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as the first openly gay man to be elected to American public office. Just 10 months later, he was assassinated by former fellow board member Dan White, who moments earlier murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Today, Harvey Milk's legacy -- as a pioneer, strategist, martyr and icon -- still reverberates in ways the director wisely leaves to viewers to contemplate.

Whether the title character is invoking hope in a speech that eerily anticipates this year's own historic "first," or inviting ironic reflection on the recent passage of California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, "Milk" resonates with uncanny depth, faithfully representing a bygone era while subtly tapping into the current one.

The list of things "Milk" gets right is a long one. But the first item has to be Sean Penn, who undergoes a startling physical transformation to play the title character. He hasn't put on or lost tons of weight, and the only visible prosthetics are a pair of brown contact lenses. But by way of simple changes in posture, facial expression and mostly voice, Penn virtually disappears into his character, burying any trace of native mannerism or accent and emerging as a wholly convincing New York Jewish boy made good.

Elfin, mischievous, often concealing a quiet giggle behind shy hands, Penn leaves his smoker's mumble behind to explore his wispier upper register, and the high-pitched Long Island drawl that emerges has the almost instantaneous effect of making him vulnerable and even childlike.

Thanks in large part to Penn's sensitive portrayal, when Harvey picks up a young stranger in a Manhattan subway station as "Milk" opens, the encounter doesn't feel predatory. Instead, it bespeaks the isolation and furtive search for intimacy engendered by years of stigma and persecution.

The young man in question, Scott Smith (James Franco), winds up going home with Harvey to celebrate the latter's 40th birthday, and two years later he moves with Harvey to San Francisco, where they set up house in the Castro neighborhood, and where Harvey proceeds to open a camera shop, become involved in local business issues and, in short order, run for office.

As the Castro takes root as a gay destination, Harvey increasingly finds his political voice, discovering a talent for coalition-building (an early success was joining local Teamsters in their boycott of Coors beer) and a genius for commanding press attention. A longtime opera fan, Harvey understood one of the most crucial axioms of getting and keeping power. "Politics is theater," he says to a potential acolyte. "It'll be fun."

As "Milk" vibrantly conveys, no one had more fun than Harvey himself, whether in the rhetorical jujitsu of his stock speech opener ("I am Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you") or, as the Toscanini of the photo-op, introducing a "pooper scooper" law that proves hugely popular. With impish glee, Penn imbues Harvey with that odd mix of idealism, compulsion and ambition that drives so many politicians. But, more crucially, he captures the joy. As Harvey goes toe-to-toe with his opponents, who range from San Francisco's gay establishment to a homophobic state legislator (back then it was Prop 6), he's not just a gay warrior but also a genuinely happy one.

Happy but, gratifyingly, not perfect. Along with Harvey's successes, "Milk" frankly depicts his flaws, including what would prove to be his fatal misreading of the hapless White. A sucker for strays, Harvey breaks up with Scott and eventually falls for a man named Jack Lira (Diego Luna), whose instability was at nearly constant odds with Harvey's own growing confidence and influence. (Viewers will be forgiven for wishing that Harvey and Scott stay together, if only because Franco's performance provides such a warm, appealing complement to Penn's.)

Throughout a career that has spanned such edgy independent films as "My Own Private Idaho" and mainstream fare like "Good Will Hunting," Van Sant has proved to be a director of rare fluency and intelligence. Here, both sensibilities serve him well as he unpacks the myriad forces that influenced Harvey's rise and fall. Van Sant packs an enormous amount of information into "Milk," meticulously weaving gay history, California politics, the nascent Christian conservative movement and the events of Harvey's personal life into one densely layered whole.

Van Sant uses just about every cinematic technique at his disposal -- newsreel footage, split screens, a variety of film stocks -- to keep "Milk" not just visually exciting, but also expressive. At one crucial juncture, for example, when Harvey needs to enlist a group of activists quickly, Van Sant uses multiplying frames of men answering the phone to illustrate swiftly and with graphic simplicity both the mechanics and exhilarating power of grass-roots organizing.

And, finally, that might be the most difficult and important thing that "Milk" gets right: celebrating the bravery, brio and burrowing, antlike banality of political work. What makes "Milk" extraordinary isn't just that it's a nuanced, stirring portrait of one of the 20th century's most pivotal figures, but also that it's also a nuanced, stirring portrait of the thousands of people he energized.

Harvey Milk was no doubt a great man, but Van Sant gratifyingly avoids making him a Great Man. Instead, he shifts his focus throughout "Milk" from Harvey himself to the movement he so ingeniously led. What's more, that push-pull approach flawlessly suits the idea Van Sant expresses most subtly: That history isn't a straight line, but an often heartbreaking two-steps-back gavotte. The point, as Harvey Milk taught so many so well, is to stay in the dance.

Milk (128 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company