The most interesting horserace of the 2009 Academy Awards boiled down to the Best Actor contest. The sentimental favorite, Mickey Rourke, chalked up one of Hollywood's greatest comebacks with a gripping performance in The Wrestler, but he fell short of snagging the statuette. Instead, that honor went to Sean Penn for his work in the title role of Milk.
Many cinephiles grumbled. Penn is an amazing actor, of course -- arguably the greatest American actor of his generation -- but his left-wing politics, hair-trigger temper and general humorlessness haven't exactly upped his stock in the likeability department. Besides, how can someone not love Mickey Rourke?
That said, Penn more than earned his Oscar win for his captivating, heartfelt portrayal of Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco city supervisor who was among the nation's first openly gay elected officeholders. It's no easy feat for an actor to play a modern-day historical figure. Often the performance is a spot-on impersonation that doesn't really capture the ineffable charisma of the real-life subject. Other times, the thespian might delve into a psychological characterization that doesn't necessarily register with what audiences know of said person.
But Sean Penn is that rare performer who nails both aspects. He gets the externals right, the faint nasal cadence of Harvey Milk's voice, his somewhat awkward mannerisms -- but he also captures the kindness and humanity at the man's core. It is an enthralling performance, maybe Penn's best to date. And that's saying something.
While many biopics saddle themselves with covering wide swaths of time, Milk has the tragic advantage of chronicling a relatively compact period, since Harvey Milk was assassinated less than two years after his historic election to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's Oscar-winning script uses the framing device of Harvey at his kitchen table, narrating his life story into a tape recorder in the event of his death. The crux of the story begins in 1972, with Harvey and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco), moving from New York to San Francisco's Castro district. Once an Irish Catholic working-class neighborhood, the Castro by then had become a growing sanctuary for young gay men across the country. Forty-two-year-old Harvey Milk had spent much of his life closeting his homosexuality, and he was eager to enjoy the freedoms that San Francisco promised. He opened a modest camera shop on Castro Street and dived into the rough-and-tumble of local politics.
Tenacious but blessed with an impish sense of humor, Harvey Milk railed against the random violence often directed at gay residents of the Castro. His public profile increased, and before long the proclaimed "mayor of Castro Street" started to pursue more vigorous social change. Surrounded by a ragtag group of supporters that included acerbic ex-gigolo Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), Harvey entered the political arena with a run for the city's Board of Supervisors.
He lost, ran again two years later -- and lost again. But his popularity and political savvy spiked with each campaign. He traded in his beard and ponytail for business suits to launch an unsuccessful bid for the California State Assembly.
Lightning finally struck in 1977 with Harvey's election to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. Among the new faces on the board that year was a clean-cut ex-firefighter named Dan White (Josh Brolin). Less than two years later, Dan White would gun down Milk and Mayor George Moscone in City Hall.
Directed by Gus Van Sant, whose credits range from the sterile artsiness of Elephant to the crowd-pleasing Good Will Hunting, Milk strikes a superb balance of conventional storytelling and artistic flourish. It boasts a looser, more improvisational vibe than one might expect in a Hollywood biopic, and Van Sant lends the proceedings a quasi-documentary feel through the use of long takes, handheld camerawork and a meticulous blending of archival news footage and reenactments. Milk renders the spirit and look of the Seventies without overdosing on fringe and bellbottoms. While it cannot totally eschew biopic cliché -- the movie has its share of on-the-nose dialogue and seemingly requisite montages -- its adherence to such dull tropes is kept to a minimum.
Even more impressive is Milk's ability to evoke the temperament of its hero. Anchored by Penn's performance, the film evokes the warmth and hopefulness of Harvey Milk. Remarkably, it does so without resorting to hagiography. The central character's idealism does not prevent him from political gamesmanship and the occasional act of self-aggrandizement. His successes as an activist and officeholder come at the expense of failed personal relationships.
Still, Harvey Milk's deeper convictions do not waver.
At one point, he is phoned by a young man who has seen the politician on TV news. The caller is homosexual, ostracized by his disapproving parents and on the verge of suicide. "You are not wrong," Harvey tells the caller. "You are not sick and God does not hate you. Just leave."
Watching the events of the late Seventies dramatized in Milk, it is impossible not to ponder how relevant the film seems given the social and political climate of 2009. Harvey Milk helped spearhead a national gay-rights movement through his opposition to Proposition 6, better-known as the Briggs Initiative, which sought to allow the firing of teachers in California based on sexual orientation. Now, more than 30 years later, the Golden State finds itself again in the eye of controversy in the wake of Proposition 8 and its outlawing of same-sex marriages. As the proverb says, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Presented in widescreen 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 television screens, Milk's picture quality is consistently strong. Lines are strong, details solid and colors properly saturated. The only quibble is very slight grain in a few dimly lighted scenes.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is clean and devoid of noticeable problems, but there is a disappointing flatness in the mix. Rear speakers don't get much of a workout, not even in the movie's many crowd scenes.
A 5.1 French-language track is available, with optional subtitles in Spanish, French and English for the hearing-impaired.
Remembering Harvey (13:31) includes reminiscences from a number of Milk's friends and associates. It's not bad at all, but it seems a little odd that the piece defers to clips from the movie instead of archival news footage. What gives? That said, the real Cleve Jones offers a brief but affecting summation of his old friend. In the end, however, any documentary treatment is going to pale beside 1984's outstanding The Times of Harvey Milk (a film to which the flick owes a considerable debt).
The 14-minute, 32-second Hollywood Comes to San Francisco boasts on-set interviews with cast and crew discussing the real Harvey Milk, Gus Van Sant and the impact of shooting on location.
Clocking in just shy of eight minutes, Marching for Equality covers the film shooting of several key gay-rights marches. It offers a smattering of interviews with people who knew and admired Harvey Milk.
Three deleted scenes with an aggregate running time of three minutes and 46 seconds are largely inconsequential.
A poignant biopic several notches above your typical Hollywood biopic, Milk is well-served by some creative filmmaking, an earnest script and uniformly great acting. It doesn't entirely acquit itself of the clichés that can dog the genre, but there is no denying that Sean Penn turns in a riveting, tour de force performance. In the end, Milk is highly recommended, but the shortage of truly compelling bonus material is a disappointment.