Halfway through “Milk,” we find Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) greeting campaign supporter Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) near the steps of San Francisco City Hall. Like Harvey, Cleve too has cleaned up his stringy hair and replaced raggedy threads with business casual attire. Harvey is visibly upset. He tells Cleve that he wants him to keep his flamboyance visible regardless of the etiquette that political theater may require. To drive the point home, he frolics up the marble steps, twirling and singing on his first day as the nation’s first openly gay public official.
The dance reveals the perennial dichotomy that is Harvey Milk: part political bulldog, part playful free spirit. Gus Van Sant, buoyed by a balanced screenplay and a series of distinctly intriguing performances, eloquently captures this tension in what is easily the most engaging and bittersweet film of the year.
Milk is a Wall Street banker who, at 40, comes out of the closet, moves to San Francisco and looks to start over. After meeting Scott Smith (James Franco) at a subway stop, things start looking up. The honeymoon is short-lived, though, with growing tension between the predominantly gay Castro community and adjacent Irish Catholic conservatives impeding on Harvey’s personal life.
As he begins patiently advocating civil rights and equal protection within his community, Milk is not so much thrust into politics as he is inexorably carried by the masses to assume the unofficial title of “Mayor of Castro Street.” After formally running for a supervisor seat and losing three times, he finally wins.
As his private life tanks — Scott can’t keep pace with the politics and a new lover (Diego Luna) grows increasingly jealous and protective — his public advocacy makes waves in the gay community. Unfortunately, Milk’s progressive agenda doesn’t sit well with Dan White (Josh Brolin), a conservative ex-fireman and fellow supervisor who grows increasingly frustrated and jilted by Milk’s successes.
Working off an insightful original screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (“Big Love”), Van Sant is careful not to push policy positions. Instead, he focuses on the gay community’s conflicting personal and public lives, thus illuminating their reasons for championing personal freedom. While his artistic flair doesn’t leave the same imprints as in his other jaunts (“Last Days,” “Elephant”), the tracks are still evident.
He splices actual footage from the 1960s between his own takes; it plays seamlessly, providing a welcome national context to Milk’s local civil rights crusade. Moreover, he wisely chooses a Danny Elfman (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”) score, thus layering the tale with an operatic element that poetically parallels Milk’s own theatrics.
If the hero of the story is Harvey Milk, the hero of the set is Penn. For the length of the film, all we see is the real Harvey Milk, right down to the vocal intonations and idiosyncratic hand gestures. Penn could have blown it, opting to create an empty shell that had the posturing down, but not providing much else. Instead, he reveals a persona who is hyper-focused and goal-oriented.
Milk is undoubtedly playful and humorous, but when it comes to his cause, the tone changes, the rules are laid out and the politics begin. Nearly halfway into the film, it appears Penn is so immersed in his role that mannerisms seemingly emerge impromptu, to the point where further scripting or direction isn’t even necessary. If he wins any acting awards, this will be why. The effect is bittersweet, for as eagerly as we embrace his passion, we just as fervently lament his murder.
The supporting cast is equally phenomenal. Brolin plays an ambiguously demented and complex Dan White with such finesse it leaves you questioning the real intent of his crime. Franco takes an understated but poignant position as Milk’s lifeline, and a boisterous Hirsch is brimming with conviction as Milk’s campaign supporter.
Despite Penn’s brilliance, “Milk” does not provide a fulfilling account of the details of Milk’s personal life, which is the result of a limit of the script and pacing more than anything else. These personal details are captured more thoroughly and carefully in the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk.” Nonetheless, it provides a compelling view of how Milk’s passion and discipline helped spawn massive community mobilization and gay activism in 1960s San Francisco and, ultimately, nationwide.
After watching this film, there will be a few scenes — powerful, visceral moments — that will linger incessantly in your head. They will beg the question: Thirty years later, who is our generation’s Harvey Milk? Who will champion the freedoms of homosexuals? While we wait for an answer, “Milk” will act as a necessary surrogate and rally our spirits to reveal a fight that is over nothing more than fundamental human rights.