Given the recent setbacks in the struggle for gay rights, it can be difficult to view Milk without the specter of those disappointments looming just outside the screen’s borders. The film, which depicts the rise to power of Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay political figure, serves as a stirring call to arms for gay rights activists, and as a reminder that sometimes progress is possible only through dedication, perseverance, and sacrifice.
Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film frequently incorporates archival footage to heighten the realism. Opening with black and white footage of police raids on homosexual bars, the film quickly reminds its present-day audience how much worse the discrimination against gays used to be, and how great the challenge facing men like Harvey Milk really was.
As played by Sean Penn—in a brilliant and vulnerable performance—Harvey is an accidental politician, an affectionate man more interested in living the good life with boyfriend Scott (James Franco) than in fighting oppression. But when he can no longer ignore the police brutality and homophobic violence that permeate his San Francisco neighborhood, Harvey utilizes his skills as an organizer to rally gays and turn them into a political power. Harvey is eventually elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and sets about affecting change from within.
Van Sant has always been adept at coaxing great performances from his actors, and this film is no exception. Penn’s performance is easily one of the year’s best, and Franco gets to show more depth than any of his previous performances have allowed. Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna both disappear into their respective roles as a politicized hustler and Harvey’s needy, unstable lover. And Josh Brolin, as rival City Supervisor Dan White, exudes both pathos and menace as his tenuous friendship with Harvey begins to sour.
Milk does at times veer into hagiography—complete with requisite sweeping score as characters gaze upon one another in beaming admiration—but for the most part Van Sant finds a good balance, frequently bolstering the drama with welcome comic relief. It may not be possible, at the moment, to watch the characters battle against 1978’s California Proposition 6 without thinking of the unfortunate passing of Proposition 8 twenty years later, and it is tempting to wonder, had the film been released sooner, what its effect on Prop 8 might have been. But one can hardly blame the filmmakers for that, especially since they have created such a moving, memorable biopic. It is to Penn’s credit that he honors Harvey Milk with a performance as exceptional and unforgettable as the man who inspired it.