Penn soars as 'Milk' in Van Sant's timely biopic

by Joseph Debonis | 12/2/08 4:30am

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Sean Penn stars in
by Courtesy of Imdb.com / The Dartmouth

Gus Van Sant's exceptionally well-crafted biopic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay, popularly elected official in the United States, would be a great film in any year. Such uncanny political relevance, however, brings the film to life in a way that blurs the line between the 1970s and the 21st century, between history past and present.

Milk (Sean Penn), after living in the closet for 40 years in New York, moves out to San Francisco with boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco), growing out his hair and embracing a flamboyant hippie lifestyle.

He opens the Castro Camera shop in the heart of San Francisco's gay quarter and goes on to become a local celebrity of sorts, speaking out against violent gay bar raids by city police.

"The Mayor of Castro Street," as Milk comes to be known, decides to run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1973. A born politician, Milk builds unlikely coalitions -- with Teamsters, senior citizens and several minority groups -- and, despite losing, does surprisingly well in the election.

After "getting serious" (cleaning up his appearance and swearing off marijuana), Milk is finally elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977, thanks largely to a change that allowed districts to elect their own supervisors.

In addition to passing a stringent gay rights ordinance, Milk spends his brief time on the board fighting California's Proposition 6, which mandated that all homosexual teachers in the state of California and anyone who supported them be fired.

The proposition is defeated, but the victory is soured by the subsequent double assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) by Dan White (Josh Brolin), a rival supervisor who is refused a reappointment to his job after resigning.

While there fortunately exist no contemporary counterparts to Milk and Moscone -- widely regarded as martyrs of the gay rights movement -- the culture war rhetoric of 1978's Proposition 6 is eerily similar to that of 2008's Proposition 8. Van Sant reminds us of how far we've come in 30 years and how, in some respects, we haven't progressed at all.

History unfolds in an incredibly seamless way, as Van Sant cleverly and carefully mixes actual archival news footage with the 1970s San Francisco staged for his camera.

Walter Cronkite and Anita Bryant, the conservative anti-gay rights crusader, are essentially supporting actors right alongside Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and Alison Pill.

That same supporting cast is featured in a photo-by-photo comparison with their real-life counterparts at the end of the film, an impressive move that points to Van Sant's confidence in the world he has recreated and the across-the-board strength of his supporting actors.

The pseudo-documentary technique is incredibly effective. Rarely has a historical film felt so wholly and completely genuine to the point where "Milk" feels less like a biopic of an individual and more of an "era-pic": the diary of a social movement, a definitive national mood in flux and a redefinition of the American social landscape.

It is also an exercise in brilliant filmmaking, as Van Sant blurs the lines between documentary and high drama with a fine-tuned aesthetic that is oh-so visually gratifying.

"Milk" is as pleasing aurally as it is visually. The film's soundtrack features hippie whimsy and '70s rock but ultimately settles on opera -- strong and deliberate and appropriate for the increasingly high stakes faced by Milk, by gay rights activists and by America.

The stakes are also high for Sean Penn, in a prominent role that could easily devolve at once into camp and melodramatic tragedy.

It is surprisingly painless for this self-professed Sean Penn-hater to say, without reservation, that Penn turns in one of the best performances of the year. It is difficult to imagine anyone but Harvey Milk himself doing a more sublime job in the title role.

Technically, the accent, infectious laugh and facial tics of Milk are mimicked in such a way that places Penn in the top ranks of biopic headliners. But it is the manner in which Penn disappears so effortlessly into the character that makes his utterly transformational performance Oscar-worthy.

Penn's face brings goosebumps when Milk learns of the Prop 6 failure and becomes heart-stopping as Milk meets Dan White for the last time. Rarely does one feel that he knows a character so well, especially one ripped from real life. That last feeling is ironic, as we actually learn very little about Harvey Milk in "Milk." The weakness of Van Sant's otherwise superb film is this lack of character depth.

We meet Milk on his 40th birthday and he is dead by 48. While those eight years are undoubtedly the most significant of his lifetime, knowing a bit more about where he came from and what he had done might have raised the personal stakes for the character later in the film. Milk as he appears in the film is more a human conduit for a social movement than a man on his own personal journey.

With its abundance of wonderfully utilized archival footage, every character in "Milk" is doomed to receive a rather superficial treatment. In wanting to know more about Mayor Moscone or Scott Smith -- as I did when the credits began to roll -- one realizes that "Milk" teaches us more about its characters' contributions to the gay rights movement than the characters themselves. We never get in the head of any character, Harvey Milk included.

Such a criticism is minor in the face of the film's technical mastery, fantastic aesthetic and powerhouse lead performance and could only be addressed by making "Milk" six hours instead of two (not necessarily a bad idea).

After all, the emergence of the gay rights movement as the lead character of "Milk" is what makes it so uncannily relevant in the year 2008.

Thirty years after Harvey Milk helped defeat Prop 8's equally ugly stepsister, one really does wonder how such a brilliant film about the inalienable rights of all mankind might have swayed California voters.

"Milk" opened last Wednesday in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.