Openly and proud homosexual Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), after 40 years of an unproductive life, decides to run for office in San Fransisco. It's a story of trial and error, with many poignant victories and painful losses which occur along the way. Harvey Milk is quite clearly an important American figure in the long and arduous fight for social justice for gays and lesbians. No pressure for Penn, right? His performance is one of the better performances of the year, whether in a U.S. based film or international. And there have been strong performances this year, so that's saying something. What is interesting is that he doesn't even have to really carry the film because the plot is gripping to begin with anyways, but his effort elevates the film even more so. Not too many films openly deal with homosexuality like Milk does (Brokeback Mountain being another one), and everything feels mature and well directed.
James Franco, who plays one of Harvey's two lovers in the film, is very competent as Scott, despite that he isn't given nearly enough screen time. He's calm and wise throughout. He appears fleetingly after their breakup and seems to take on the role of the Harvey's voice of reason, a role that suits him perfectly. This has been an impressive year for Franco and one hopes that he'll continue to explore his acting chops in the years to come. Diego Luna does show some acting chops, but his character is under written and feels a tad 'one note.' That isn't is the actor's fault though. The screenwriters are to blame for that. His character is an oddball and possibly even legitimately paranoid. He behaves in a very needy fashion and demands for Harvey's attention, especially when the latter is hard at work. The audience rarely, if ever, sees Luna's character in another light, which is frustrating since with the way he behaves on screen, it's actually kind of difficult to determine what attracted Harvey Milk to him in the first place. A last special note should be given to Josh Brolin, who plays Dan White, a straight city supervisor who, despite his early allegiance to Harvey, soon becomes a political rival. There is something very subtle in his performance that really should be seen.
The directing is quite good, as the movie moves along briskly but still rests long enough on the crucial moments in Milk's career. Nothing of great significance feels too rushed. The pace is great and one won't see time fly when gripped by this rich tapestry laid out by director Van Sant. He knows the beats that work and what isn't necessary and might drag the movie down. Complaints that the movie spends too much time on the public life of Harvey can be understood, but I suspect that his story is all too unfamiliar for many people (I had no idea who he was until I found out this movie was coming out) so the fact that the story dwells very much on what the man fought for, which lays out the subject matter, and how precisely he fought for it, which lays out the man, is appreciated. Van Sant does a nice job of presenting us who this man was and the impact he had on other homosexuals around the U.S. who were also seeking respect. There are several uplifting scenes throughout the film that depicts the courage and sheer determination these people showed in the face of adversity (most notably the police). When the subject matter is so interesting and the acting so good, none of those scenes feel as if they are pleading for emotional responses from the audience. The movie rightfully earns every one of them. The movie's overall feel does fall into the traditional biopic mold somewhat. The same director gave us Paranoid Park earlier this year, which did a tremendous job at conveying emotion and narration through clever and artistic editing and cinematography. That doesn't quite apply here. This is mainstream friendly filming. Still, it doesn't hurt the film really since the purpose is to tell an important, interesting and straightforward story.
I can hear the cries of 'art house Van Sant is so much better' now. I would be inclined to agree with such an argument. But that doesn't mean mainstream Van Sant is bad though. Milk is a case in point.