Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Countries & Regions: United States
Length: 128 mins
Released: 8 June 2009
Cat No: MP907D
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Also available on Blu-ray
Gus van Sant directs this political biopic telling the story of California’s first openly gay elected public official, Harvey Milk. Sean... Read More
Gus Van Sant’s biopic of activist and politician Harvey Milk contains at least two surprises: it doesn’t screw up an extraordinary life story, and it makes you warm to Sean Penn. In a role rife with contradictions and extremes – a Jewish Republican, Milk became San Francisco’s first openly gay Supervisor before his assassination in 1978 by fellow councilman Dan White – Penn assumes the form of a born people-pleaser, leading the way out of the closet and into the halls of power in fine, Oscar-winning fashion. It’s the most approachable performance of this sometimes agonised-seeming actor’s career.
If Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay proceeds from one biopic convention – Milk narrating his memoirs to audiotape – Van Sant employs a variety of tactics and textures to ensure the experience is livelier and less constrictive than one might expect. Bright young performers (James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill) suggest the energies – sexual, as well as political – of Milk’s campaign office, while vivid archive footage fills in the culture of fear from which the gay rights movement emerged.
Only newsreel can do full justice to the virulence of former orange juice saleswoman Anita Bryant’s crusade against the ‘evil forces’ of homosexuality, but the buttoned-down White (Josh Brolin) proves another opponent altogether. The City Hall scenes pit an outsider who knew exactly who he was (‘I am Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you’, the slogan goes) against a political insider far less certain of himself: Brolin’s all-American squarejaw quivers with compelling self-doubt.
Van Sant (Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park) has oftentimes seemed amongst the most placid of American directors, but here he’s thoroughly attuned to the tumult of the times depicted: the marches, the rioting, the high, sometimes self-destructive emotions. Milk is a reminder of an era when to be gay was itself an issue, but one acutely aware of how – post-Proposition 8 – that issue may remain up for discussion yet. The results, accordingly, swing both ways: not just unusually intelligent and engrossing social history, but a continuation of its subject’s passionate, stirring, even straight-friendly advocacy.