Milk Directed by: Gus Van Sant Cast: Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna Running Time: 2 hrs 8 mins Rating: R
Plot: Sean Penn is gay-rights activist Harvey Milk. Set in the 1970s, Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America. This film tells the story of his rise to power and his tragic end.
Who’s It For? This is a story that isn't told that much. We still live in an insanely divided country ... just look at the horrendous decision to reverse gay marriage rights in California, of all places. There is an insanely talented cast and a very important story to be told here.
Expectations: Thanks to my wife the history major, I knew just a hint of this story. But I think I was most excited about Van Sant moving away from teenage angst with Elephant and Paranoid Park.
Actors: Sean Penn as Harvey Milk: First the good ... Penn pulls off the energy and sympathy that is needed to become the self-declared Mayor of Castro Street in San Francisco. His good and bad taste in men isn't really explored much (we'll get to that in a minute). But here's what I couldn't shake ... Penn's portrayal of Harvey most closely resembles his portrayal of Sam from I am Sam. No, I am NOT saying gays act developmentally disabled. If that's what you take away from this, then you are completely missing the point. And in all likelihood Penn is doing a near spot on portrayal of Harvey. But what I am saying is Penn made character choices with Sam and with Harvey. And in his entire body of work, he plays those two characters more similar than any other characters I can think of. It's the most obvious when he uses a loud voice. But even some of the body movements, like the way he dances. They are linked. For Harvey's sake, I wish Sam never existed. Score: 7
James Franco as Scott Smith: Scott is the rock. At first, when Harvey and Scott hook up in New York, I assumed it would be a little fling that would end badly. But Franco, his curly fro, and his eventual tribute to Freddie Mercury (he's a dead ringer) are very necessary and their positive, healthy relationship is the only time we get to see Harvey not running for a political office. Score: 8
Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones: Cleve arrives at the perfect time and adds a burst of energy to the film. All signs pointed to Harvey being too smitten with Cleve to let this character develop, but thankfully Hirsch is given room to breath. Hirsch gets past his poof of hair (it was the '70s after all) and the comical glasses to bring a character to light that is the hope of the future. Score: 9
Diego Luna as Jack Lira: Now to Harvey's bad choice in men. Whenever Cleve lifts up the film, Jack is right around the corner to drag us back down. Yes, there are moments of humor, such as Jack locking himself in the closet (literally not figuratively), but mainly you just want to scream at Harvey to get rid of this guy. In other words, Luna does a great job creating a character that is supposed to drive us nuts. Score: 7
Josh Brolin as Dan White: It's always uneasy when Dan is around. If you know the story already, you know why, but it also has to do with what Brolin brings to the role. You never get a sense of who he truly is, and it's unnerving. There are hints about his sexuality, but that seems more like a device created by Van Sant. Score: 8
Talking: "I'm Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you." That was the beginning of his speeches. And we get a lot of speeches, but they never drag on, in fact, I wanted more. And I especially want more of the debate between Harvey and State Senator John Briggs (John O'Hare). Score: 7
Sights: Authentic footage is shown throughout the film. In the beginning, we get a glimpse of homosexuals being arrested ... for being gay. Then Anita Bryant, in all her right-wing glory, takes center stage to explain why America is pure. The mixture of real footage (looking good 1970s Tom Brokaw) puts you in the proper context and makes you believe you are watching history. Score: 8
Sounds: "Rock the Boat" hasn't taken any film to a higher level, but "Everyday People" by Sly & the Family Stone always works. And what gay film wouldn't be complete without Judy Garland singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow?" Danny Elfman controls the score of the film beautifully, especially when he backs off during the sad ending and just gives hints of music. Score: 7
Best Scene: With the results of Proposition 6 rolling in, Harvey looks like a beaten man who needs a jolt of hope. He got it.
Ending: The inevitable ending actually manages to lift up your spirits. Mainly because we get a "where are they now" moment before the credits roll. I was actually thinking how annoyed I would be if I didn't get that moment. Thankfully, Van Sant realized that.
Questions: How can we not look at the amazing work that Harvey did with Proposition 6, the movement that tried to fire all homosexual teachers in California ... and just have our heart break for all the couples in California that are no longer "married." Every time I believe we've moved forward, I am unfortuately reminded about how long "forward" can take.
Rewatchability: Yes, for all the great performances. And again, this is how I like my history, it's a film you want to share with people if they are unfamiliar with the story.
I would have loved more moments showing Harvey talking to straight people, recruiting straight people into a better way of thinking. But when a film spans a decade, you can't show it all. Though we do get to see what could be considered the beginning of the religious right into our political system. Penn captures the spirit of Harvey and the rest of the cast is brilliant. If you get squeamish with two men kissing, there aren't a ton of risks taken in that department. This is really about a man who gave his life to a movement. Everyone knows about the tragic end of MLK. More people need to know Harvey Milk's story.
Final Score: 8/10