Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco
Directed by: Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”)
Written by: Dustin Lance Black (TV’s “Big Love”)
With all the governmental conspiracy in the news today (we’re finger wagging at you Gov. Blagojevich) and a blast-from-the-past take on the Richard Nixon scandal in the upcoming “Frost/Nixon,” a story of positive political effort is always welcomed even if the film ends on a tragic and all-too-real note.
The life of protagonist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn in an Oscar-worthy performance) in the biopic “Milk” is one of pain and rejection, but also one of perseverance and hope for a country caught in a social crossroads in the 1970s. The film, of course, becomes more prevalent today with the aftermath of Proposition 8 still looming in California causing the line between human rights and gay rights to blur more and more as both sides fight to define marriage.
In “Milk,” the Gay Movement is brought to the forefront through powerful storytelling and an interesting combination of narrative and old footage of news conferences, rallies, and the uprising of gay men and women through the streets of San Francisco.
Penn captures Milk’s essence in one of the best performances of the year. As Milk, he is able to skillfully develop the character between the different stages of his life – from a novice business owner to a gay rights activist to his election as a member of the city’s Board of Supervisors, a position that offered him a taller soap box to stand up on behalf of his fellow gay constituency.
While Penn is the virtuoso in this political opera, his supporting cast is just as riveting. As Milk’s first lover Scott Smith, James Franco (“Pineapple Express”) brings out the most human side of the larger-than-life politician. Franco’s affection for Harvey as a man and his affliction to understand him as a man of the people is valuable in seeing the entire picture. As Dan White, the man who ultimately ends up assassinating Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone (played by Victor Garber) in 1978, Josh Brolin is a complex character worthy of dissection. Between him and Franco, at least one of them should have an Oscar nomination come January.
It’s also great to see director Gus Van Sant ascend from his last three provoking albeit lesser-known films known as the “Death Trilogy” (“Gerry,” “Last Days” and “Elephant”). He goes a bit more mainstream in “Milk” but never bends in ways that are out of his element.