In 1970, Harvey Milk was working for an insurance company in New York City. In 1977, he was elected to the office of City Supervisor for the City of San Francisco. He was the first openly gay man ever elected to a public office. A year later, he was dead, gunned down in his office by a fellow co-worker. The set up is that Milk is recording his memoirs on tape, relaying the information to the viewer. Many pivotal and important events in the fight for gay rights are documented here, from Milk's defeat of the Briggs Initiative, to the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day March. At just over two hours, the movie is the right length, covering everything, but not dwelling too long on something. It moves at a breakneck pace, keeping the viewer completely enthralled in what is going on.
Sean Penn plays Milk. Is there anything I need to say about his performance. No. Just by watching a trailer, you know that he is brilliant. From Milk's mannerisms, to his accent, to the way he dressed, walked, blinked his eyes, whatever, Penn nails it. He is so good here, from his humorous conversations with his campaign team, to the heartbreaking ending. Will he win Oscar number two for this? Bet on it. Emile Hirsch plays Cleve Jones, the man Harvey turned to when he needed a crowd. Coming off his astounding performance in Into the Wild, and his ok performance in Speed Racer, Hirsch reminds us, yet again, why he is a serious player in Hollywood. James Franco plays Scott Smith, Milk's lover who moves to San Francisco with him. With this and his hysterical performance in Pineapple Express, Franco is having a career year, making us forget about his pretty boy stints in Flyboys and Annapolis. He will also be another serious player, come Oscar time. The last big role falls to Josh Brolin. He plays Dan White, a fellow supervisor of Milk's, and ultimately, the man who murdered him and Mayor George Moscone. Brolin proves, yet again, that he is, quite possibly, the best actor working today. His performance as the conflicted and troubled White, while certainly more contained then his scenery chewing performance as George W. Bush last month, is fantastic. Pretty much every single actor featured here is astounding. Expect to see Penn's, Hirsch's, and Franco's named mentioned when the Oscar nominations are announced.
Director Gus Van Sant is master worker. This is certainly his most ambitious project, and easily his best. Yes, that's right. I said it. Milk is a better movie then Good Will Hunting. You heard it here first, folks. Now, I knew Van Sant would be able to handle the story of Milk with deft hands and an open mind, but what really astonished me is his attentions to the little details. Everything, from the clothes, hairstyles, and mannerisms are all displayed exactly as the were. Now, I guess these can all be attributed to the costume designers and hair stylists, but, hey, at the end of the day, they all work for him. Another thing that he handled really well was the integration of actual footage into the framework of the film. It is seamless how he takes actual, documented footage of a march, and intersperses it with footage that he filmed. It sounds a bit crazy, but it makes the story even more grounded in reality. And then, after all that, Van Sant manages to deliver one of the most heart wrenchingly sad endings to come along since Schindler's List.
Milk is one of those movies that see the light of day only every so often. It's a bit uncanny how it is appearing when all this shit with Prop. 8 is going on, but it is relevant. It's sad; terribly sad, less so because the story ends on a sad note, and more so because this movie hammers home the fact that, after all the things Milk did, almost nothing has changed. The same arguments are still being used; the same problems are still arising. It's bullshit, I know, but that's life. Thank God we had people like Milk to give us some hope.