The film opens with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) speaking into a microphone and recorder, possibly the middle of the night, documenting his story in fear of assassination, sitting nervously in an empty kitchen. His hair is wiry red and combed over, his legs crossed, his shoulders taught and face tensed.
Thus we are introduced to Sean Penn’s stirring portrayal of slain San Franciscan Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, serving on the Board of Supervisors. Director Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece is a film taking us into the early 70’s of San Francisco and into the end of the decade with Milk’s grievous killing, his life during this time a tumultuous journey leading not only gay rights in his community but also across the nation.
Van Sant captures the look and feel of this era with not only perfect costumes and style but adding a faded look to the film, with blurred frames and a grainy overcast. He also inserts snippets of actual footage from news casts as well, further reinforcing what it must have felt like during that time, capturing the movement and momentum of the gay rights experience.
The many characters that move through Milk’s life are all given equal depth and background, well developed and memorable, rallying around Milk’s guiding light of love and equality, highlighted by James Franco’s performance. It’s impossible not to sympathize with their struggle, pulling for each one, feeling their passion as it bleeds onto the streets of San Francisco, the city and the national media bent on breaking them.
Van Sant explains the political traps along the way that Milk must dodge, defend and manipulate, never losing his way, providing the truth to his community. This caused him to incite the ire of fellow Board Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), an all american politician that held a fierce grudge against Milk, ultimately putting two bullets in his head.
Sean Penn’s interpretation of Milk is mesmerizing, deservedly winning an Oscar. He’s the glue of the film and holds it well, immersing into his character to give his best performance over a long, brilliant career. His unyielding optimism, his humor and brilliant mind are conveyed easily, a magnetic presence that draws us in, crushing us with his unnecessary passing but ultimately not his message.
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Tags: Dan White, Gus Van Sant, Harvey Milk, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn