Gus Van Sant returns from the cinematic wilderness of low-budget experimental doodles like Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park to deliver his most conventional film in a decade, and one of his finer efforts. What's funny is its subject is a man who similarly bucked popular convention by embracing it: Harvey Milk.
An unabashed Hollywood-style biopic, Milk is a humble and stirring portrait of San Francisco gay activist Milk (Sean Penn), who, in 1978, became the first openly homosexual politician to be elected to public office in California. With a keen eye on the political setbacks and successes of Milk (rather than his personal melodramas), Van Sant contextualizes the struggle of gays when right-wing groups, led by Anita Bryant, sought to ensure their status as second-class citizens. The parallels to California's recently passed Proposition 8 are all too obvious and serve as a depressing reminder of how far we still have to go to become a tolerant and just society. It's baffling that the producers didn't push harder to open Milk before Election Day, elevating the public discourse on gay civil rights. More importantly, it could've been a terrific reminder to the current LGBT leadership of how effective Milk's dogged yet gentle tactics were at the time.
Focusing only on the last eight years of his life, Milk is surprisingly traditional with its narrative, laying out Milk's political awakening as he evolves from casual business owner to righteous citizen to the unofficial Mayor of Castro Street. While we may not learn a whole lot about what made him tick, Dustin Lance Black's script does a good job of charting Milk's growing political savvy, taking the audience on an insider's view of how a successful political movement gets started. Less by drama and more by persistence, Milk is elected a board supervisor, where his position and charisma make him the perfect foil for the religious right's McCarthy-like assaults on the gay and lesbian community.
Van Sant brilliantly captures the time and place with meticulous art direction, well-matched archival footage, cringe-worthy fashions and short bursts of cinematic fancy. He keeps the movie brisk and engaging, taking what could have been an endless parade of period vignettes and turning them into a reflection of Milk's seemingly boundless sense of humanity. Not everything works: The later political confrontations feel a bit like dramatic re-creations and a subplot about Milk's needy and depressed Mexican lover becomes a drag on the film, lacking any insight or revealing character moments. Still, it's a historically and politically important film that smartly avoids sentimentality or nostalgia.
What pulls everything together, however, is Sean Penn's spectacularly infectious performance. It's been a long time since the perpetually brooding actor has lightened up, but with Milk he finds a gentle exuberance that clues us into why this man meant so much to so many. He's brave, provocative, cuddly and cunning in equal measure, and Penn layers in just the right amount of innuendo and self-deprecation to make it work. It's a brilliantly nuanced performance that should be remembered come Oscar time.
The rest of the cast is similarly terrific, with Alison Pill as Milk's lesbian campaign manager, James Franco as his easygoing and, possibly, one true love, and Josh Brolin once again impressing as Dan White, the troubled colleague who eventually assassinated Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Eschewing cartoon villainy, Van Sant and Brolin take careful pains to render White as a three-dimensional person. (It's White's interactions with Milk that generate some of the film's most poignant and fascinating moments.)
Unlike the icons of the civil rights era who, by the barrel of a gun, left this world too early, Milk's murder was not committed in public. It was behind closed doors in an office not much bigger than a closet, a place people like White were determined to shove people like Milk back into. Van Sant lays out the injustice of those last moments by depicting the act with graphic brutality before reclaiming Milk's death with a final operatic flourish. To some, that flourish may seem hokey. But it's fitting, granting us a graceful memory for this uniquely inspirational man.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.