"Milk" is compassionate, enraged, evocative, and upsetting. I can't believe Gus Van Sant directed it. After eight long years of cinematically picking lint out of his bellybutton, Van Sant returns from the void of his scarf collection with this noble bio-pic, a film awash with colorful characters and a pinpoint recreation of a time and place in history that would forever change the world, all started with one man's desire to feel acceptance in the most vulnerable of spaces: the soul.
Approaching 40 years of age, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) wanted to transform his life. Moving to San Francisco in the early 1970s with lover Scott (James Franco), Milk set up shop on Castro Street opening a camera store, finding friends quickly within the burgeoning gay community. Assuming a place of leadership in the neighborhood, the rush of power led Milk to the doorstep of City Hall, spending a good portion of the decade running for, and finally winning, a political seat, much to the mortification of fellow decision-maker Dan White (James Brolin). Finally achieving a place in the history books as the first openly gay man elected to public office, Milk took the city by storm, seeking a better world for his community, while dealing with the likes of Anita Bryant and her attempt to outlaw homosexuality across America. He had achieved the impossible, but it was not to last; Milk was assassinated, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone, by White in 1978.
Informed in part by the 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk," Van Sant's take on this unbelievable man and his beguiling tenacity assumes a far more open-hearted approach to deconstructing Milk and his rise to power. The framework of the picture consists of Milk alone, soberly speaking into a tape recorder, leaving behind his thoughts in the likely event of his assassination, with the director gingerly following the stark cue to cover Milk from his sexual liberation with Scott to his dying breath. It's a significant six years screenwriter Dustin Lance Black proficiently turns from customary historical observance to an epic awakening of heart and mind, driving to the core of Milk's spirit by tracing along the edges of his aspirations and concerns.
There are several elements to "Milk" that stand out from the rest of the movie, but a major reason to invest time in the picture is Van Sant's recreation of San Francisco during the rolling '70s, where homosexuality found a focal point of sorts. Merging period news footage, the fluid photography from cinematographer Harris Savides, and the seemingly unchanged foot-traffic electricity of the Castro District, "Milk" submerges the viewer in the era, deftly moving back and forth between fact and fiction, erecting a flawless arena of discontent for Milk to temper with his gooey cleverness and steadfast ideas of equality. "Milk" is an easy film to get lost in, Van Sant putting the visual puzzle together with an interest toward economy and verve he hasn't shown in years. Good heavens, it's fantastic to be reminded he's still capable of telling an effective story.
The more obvious achievement of "Milk" is the acting, observing an eclectic cast set loose in period hair and costume design, endeavoring to capture the slowly funneled mischief of San Francisco under Milk's contributions to public office. Sharp supporting turns from Emile Hirsch (flaming it up as Cleve Jones), Alison Pill (as lesbian media guru Anne Kronenberg), and Franco fill out the film's edges, but nothing tops Sean Penn and his triumphant work as Milk. It's typical mastery from Penn, who gives one of his full-body-contortion efforts to imbue exhilaration into Milk, zeroing in on his blinding public pride in areas of sexual preference and efforts to unify the community against hateful outside forces. A warmly sexualized, comedic, reverential portrayal (the depiction hints at, but refuses to explore Milk's megalomania), Penn grabs Milk with both hands, acting as the guide rails for Van Sant's hospitable direction. He endows the film with a vibrant, fallible interior that keeps the interpretation grounded and convincing.
Milk's struggles with the near-demonic Bryant and the rise of the "Proposition 6" anti-homosexual movement across the country (providing a vivid, relevant reminder of the recent Proposition 8 hostility) make up most of political trials of the film, leaving little room for the Dan White story that seems so integral to any discussion of Milk. Played with tight Christian exasperation by Brolin, White is nevertheless left an enigma, depicted as an anxious reactionary who didn't take kindly to Milk's Technicolor political maneuvering, leaving him no choice but to respond with violence. Van Sant's epilogue points out White's serious mental issues (leading to the infamous "Twinkie defense" when he stood trial for the murder) that are curiously left out the film, making the characterization hollow and oddly insignificant. While Dan White's side of the story isn't in Van Sant's field of vision, the lack of a proper psychological calibration is disappointing when watching a film of such stirring itemization.
The life and times of Harvey Milk finds an artistic comfort with Gus Van Sant, who really delivers on the amazement within the story, capturing a special life lived in service of others, often at the cost of Milk's tattered personal affairs. "Milk" is an inspirational and spirited motion picture, and to have this achievement emerge from Van Sant makes the film a semi-miracle too.