5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Oselund
When planning a post-election, pre-holiday release date for their Oscar front-runner, “Milk,” the execs over at Focus Features couldn't have anticipated just how relevant the film would become. With California's gay marriage-repealing Proposition 8 freshly enacted, a biopic about slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk – America's first openly gay politician who fought and defeated his state's gay teacher witch-hunt, Proposition 6, in 1978 – has an intensified socio-political oomph. “Milk” is a pillar of pride -- out and about, flashing its colors and asserting its voice. With the Obama-friendly theme of HOPE as its mantra, the movie has an authentic ability to change people's minds by chronicling how one man changed them over 30 years ago. And, as directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black, and performed by a brilliant cast led heroically by Sean Penn, it's the most rousingly inspirational and deeply moving film I've seen all year.
It recounts the last eight years of Milk's (Penn) life, from his 40th birthday as a New York nobody to his migration to San Fran's Castro District with lover Scott Smith (James Franco) to his assassination at 48 by fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). Van Sant packs that nearly decade-long span with the vivacious vibrancy of the '70s, and introduces us not only to his bevy of dexterous actors (which also includes Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Joseph Cross, and Alison Pill), but also to actual members of the society he's recreated. He harmoniously blends found footage of the dynamic gay haven with Harris Savides' oft-grainy cinematography, creating a historical docu-drama that hums with realism yet still has the rapture of a great novel. It's guided along by the tape-recorded recollections of Milk himself (as portrayed by Penn), a man who seems to have been prophetically aware of his brief opportunity to make a difference. He seizes his chance when, after opening a camera shop on Castro Street and instrumentally turning the neighborhood into a homosexual microcosm, an invasion of religious intolerance and police brutality threatens his community's way of life and prompts him to run for office.
With an accuracy that calls to mind the long-road campaign of our current president-elect, “Milk” depicts how a small, grassroots movement can spread into a national phenomenon on the basis of a singular belief (“We're fighting for our lives, here,” Milk says). Milk starts out standing on a box on a street corner with a megaphone, and ends up a state figurehead who makes headlines and receives phone calls from suicidal, salvation-seeking gay teens across the country. He “recruits” people off the street, relentlessly pursues support from skeptical political power players, and transforms The Castro into the Woodstock-like mecca of his cause. He faces down the opposition of radical conservatives like State Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) and Southern Baptist singer-turned-anti-gay-spokeswoman Anita Bryant (who plays herself in archival news interviews) with an unyielding courage. And though he sees failures and is constantly aware of his challenges (the film is very attentive to Milk and co.'s fears and vulnerabilities), his eventual victories and inevitable ascension as the voice of an entire culture of oppressed people stems from a valiant refusal to back down. (“I'm not a candidate,” he insists. “The movement is the candidate.”)
Black's retelling of these events rolls out with great fervor and fluidity, and it's aided by acting of the highest order. Franco caps off a banner year – he stole the show in Judd Apatow's “Pineapple Express” – by rapidly maturing before our eyes and tapping into his heartthrob appeal with a just-right amount of restraint. Brolin, who seems to have all the right moves lately, adds another fascinating performance to his newly enviable resume', allowing White's volcanic center to boil to its desperate breaking point. Hirsch, who proved his chops last year in Penn's “Into the Wild,” is a flamboyant, streetwise delight as Milk's hustling point man. Even Luna, who plays a familiar, comic relief role as Milk's featherbrained interim lover, instills gravity in his superfluous character. And Penn, all doe-eyed and optimistic with an almost impervious ear-to-ear grin, conveys precisely why Milk was able to accomplish what he did in a time when films like “Brokeback Mountain” were still relegated to underground venues. He's impossibly charming and undaunted by the prejudice that sometimes literally closes in around him. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, Penn is an actor who devotes every inch of himself to the character he's playing. In the end credits, there's a montage of the principal players and their real-life counterparts. With Penn and Milk, there's a resemblance, of course, but it's the personalities that look most similar. Penn tackles the role and finds Milk's soul.
And then there's Van Sant. One does not reach a professional peak like “Milk” without building blocks of groundbreaking work. A pioneer of the New Queer Cinema that roared onto the scene in the early '90s, the openly gay Van Sant is a child of the very world he's documenting here. I think it's safe to say that this is the film he's waited to make his whole life. Watching it, we can see the artistic evolution of an American auteur. Stylistically, there are pieces of “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “To Die For,” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” Thematically, there are shades of “Idaho,” “Mala Noche,” and “Good Will Hunting.” Ultimately, what Van Sant has achieved is a career culmination by way of a modern masterpiece.
I very rarely applaud at the end of movies. It's a futile practice to clap at an inanimate screen. But, in spite of myself, after wiping away tears, I clapped for “Milk.”