The life of gay activist and groundbreaking San Francisco political figure Harvey Milk is one of the most remarkable stories of 20th century politics. Milk’s word-of-mouth, pseudo grassroots campaign (there was nothing usual about his approach to politics) emphasized the need to change the public perception of gay men and women from overlooked to empowered. Along the way, he befriended and eventually angered Dan White, a colleague, whose dislike of Milk went well beyond a mere disagreement and ended shockingly. Over the years, many directors and actors (including Danny Devito and Robin Williams) have reportedly been attached to a film version of Milk’s life, a natural for a gripping Hollywood biographical drama. Finally, Milk’s life has been made into an imperfect but still impressive film bio.
This is the most passionately directed film Gus Van Sant has made in a while. His most recent works have been experimental dramas, with the result sometimes just weak. Here, Van Sant meticulously recreates the look and feel of ‘70s San Francisco and immerses you in an incredible story.
Sean Penn is astonishing, funny and moving as Harvey Milk. Penn wasn’t my first choice for the role (in person and in other films, his appearance couldn’t be more unlike Milk’s) but he nails it; the look, the voice, his in-your-face but lovable quality, it’s all there. Penn becomes Milk and I frequently forgot I was watching an actor. Emile Hirsch, following a half-awake performance in Speed Racer, is a live wire as one of his colorful campaign workers and, as Dan White, Josh Brolin is a forceful presence in a role that should have been much bigger.
Overall, this stirring drama is surprisingly conventional in its storytelling and skimps on some key details (with the most shocking twist left to a title card before the end credits). I understand the filmmakers wanting to keep the focus on Milk, but the nature of the story’s last act (involving the infamous “Twinkie defense”) is so jaw-dropping, I was disappointed it was omitted from an otherwise thorough film. Not all of the characters are given proper screen time or development, but the terrific performances almost make up for that and you understand all too well how a charismatic, playful and down-to-earth politician like Milk got as far as he did.
The Times of Harvey Milk, the 1984 Best Documentary Oscar winner, is more thorough and is still the definitive take on this subject. In fact, it’s among the best documentaries ever made and makes an ideal double feature with this film.
This is a film about a gay activist, directed by a gay filmmaker, about gay issues, but the story is so fascinating and the performances are so remarkable, most will be caught up and compelled no matter how they feel about the topic. Harvey Milk may have been a symbol for gay men and women but he was also an inspiring, extremely likable man. Penn and the film capture that. MTW
Screens Tuesday, Dec. 30 at 7:30pm at the Castle Theater in Kahului as part of Maui Film Festival’s First Light series.