Milk is a well-intentioned film, but it's also well-made, and it never confuses nobility of purpose with narrative direction. It's full of inspiration and aspiration, but at the same time, it never kids itself -- or us -- about the tricky, twisty ways of modern American urban politics. It's a sincere plea for equality that doesn't ignore the challenges of prejudice and fear. It celebrates past victories and speaks to current struggles; it mourns devastating losses and is still a hymn to hope. It commemorates a man and spotlights a movement; it avoids cliché feel-good moments but still wrings richness out of moments that feel good. It has a heart, and a brain; it's tender and loving while also being sexy and hot; it features a brilliant performance from Sean Penn but surrounds him with other talented actors doing superb work. Milk is adult and intelligent in ways many films are not, and it's rousing and enthralling in a way few films are. It's a minor miracle of sheer film making joy and determination, and one of the best American films of 2008.
Directed by Gus Van Sant (Elephant, My Own Private Idaho), Milk is radically conventional; it's also subtly, gracefully, innovative and sharp. Best of all, Milk shows us a man who may have been a martyr, but who was most assuredly not a saint -- and makes us respect his accomplishments all the more by showing us the public work and private deals it took to make them happen. Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, a New York white collar worker who, at 40, came out of the closet, moved to San Francisco in 1972 with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) and opened a business and got active -- first as a community organizer, then as a political candidate and ultimately a San Francisco City Supervisor in 1977, the first openly gay elected official in California. Milk was killed in 1978, when his fellow Supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin) shot and killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Milk in the wake of White's resignation. It's hard to imagine an audience member not knowing this going into Milk, and yet Van Sant wisely puts it up front, to contextualize Milk's work and to let the film -- and the audience -- commemorate a life instead of merely chronicling a death.
Dustin Lance Black's script is a model of efficiency and good judgment; the film picks up Milk's life on his 40th birthday and never looks back; there are no explanatory flashbacks, no childhood moments, just the decisions that led him to San Francisco and the things he did when he got there. And, like Soderberg's Che from earlier this year, the deliberate decision to edit a life for the significant events instead of trying to fit everything onto the screen makes for a far better film that avoids the rush and crush of lesser biographical films. (" ... Dewey Cox has to think about his whole life before he goes onstage. ...") Van Sant's direction is also excellent -- bustling and busy when it needs to be, quiet and still when it should be. Cinematographer Harris Savides recreates '70s San Francisco with economy in both senses of the word; the low-budget is stretched but never fragile when it creates the film's time period, and his shooting style only calls attention to itself at a few, carefully chosen, very specific moments.
Penn will earn an Oscar nomination for his work, and may very well deserve the win; his performance has both a bright, brilliant surface and unexpected depths. When Milk leans in to kiss a man he's just met on a subway station's stairs and then peers over the man's shoulder and his own, it's a perfectly realized moment of passion and paranoia in conflict. Watching Penn play Milk, you get the sense that while Milk was carefully, deliberately provoking his audience, he was also provoking himself, daring his political career into being. But the supporting cast around Penn is excellent -- Franco's lover who becomes a friend, Hirsch's party boy who becomes an activist. Brolin's turn as White is crafted with care and still immediately satisfying, and makes White more than just the man who pulled the trigger.
Milk includes the fight against the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 California ballot initiative that would have stripped gay and lesbian teachers of their jobs, and even taken away the jobs of those teachers who supported them. Black, Van Sant and Penn show us how Milk worked to stop the initiative with persistence, perspective and humor; refuting the idea that gay teachers 'recruit' kids, Milk notes that "If it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you'd sure have a hell of a lot more nuns running around," making a joke and the point. (Van Sant also uses only news footage to show us Anita Bryant, the gospel singer and anti-gay activist who supported Prop. 6 and other nationwide anti-gay initiatives; it's a sharp choice that not only shows us the battle unfolding as most people saw it happen then, in news coverage and soundbites, but it also works as an insightful directorial casting choice; what performer could compete with the performance Bryant was giving in the public arena?) There's been some question if releasing Milk before the November 4th elections might have 'moved the needle' against the vote for the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California; it's hard to say, but what Milk makes clear for any follower of modern activist politics was that Harvey Milk succeeded because he failed, because he knew how to turn every loss into a chance to take what he'd learned and apply it to the next race.
Milk shows us the joy of victory, and the pain of what victory can cost; it shows us the agony of loss, and the opportunities to re-think, re-organize and retrench that loss can give us. Milk repeats one of Harvey Milk's best-known lines: 'You gotta give 'em hope." Milk understands not just what hope can do but also the hate, fear and ignorance that make hope required. It shows the struggle for gay rights in the '70s, but it also makes it clear that there are too many groups -- and too many people -- who are still treated as if there are asterisks and escape clauses hidden in the Bill of Rights denying them the chance to try and attain life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Milk isn't a hollow Hollywood exercise in hero-making, and that makes it all the better: Van Sant's film succeeds so well because of its complexity, its ambiguity, its devastating combination of sorrow and joy; walking out of Milk, you'll be energized and excited, moved to feel and moved to act, amazed at one man doing so much and painfully aware of how much there is left to do.