I had been worried about this one. Sean Penn didn't strike me as an obvious choice to play Harvey Milk. I mean, great actor, sure, but when I think Penn, I think of characters who are tightly wound, who keep everything bottled tightly inside until the "give me an Oscar, please" eruption happens in the last act. And Harvey Milk was anything but tightly wound and bottled up; he was an exuberant, outgoing, effusive force.
I needn't have worried. Penn is marvelous here, in a performance unlike anything I can remember seeing him do before. Some of my friends have complained, in fact, that it's too big a performance, but I don't agree. There are, to be sure, some histrionic moments, but when they occur, it is always clear that it's Milk's histrionics and not Penn's.
By now, you surely know the story of the film -- the political rise of Harvey Milk, whose election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 made him the first openly gay public official at that level in the US, and his assassination by fellow Supervisor Dan White. For those few in the audience who don't know how the story ends, Van Sant tells us in the first few minutes, with archival footage of then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing to the press that Milk and Mayor George Moscone have been murdered.
One of the marvels of Van Sant's movie, therefore, is that it manages to be entertaining and suspenseful even though we all know how it's going to end. Writer Dustin Lance Black gets a great deal of the credit on this front; his screenplay is crisp, funny, and deeply moving, especially in the final moments.
Milk is Penn's show, to be sure -- he's in almost every scene -- but the rest of the cast is first-rate, too. Emile Hirsch as the young activist Cleve Jones; James Franco as Milk's partner, Scott Smith; Denis O'Hare as John Briggs, Victor Garber as George Moscone -- all memorable performances. Best of the bunch is Josh Brolin's Dan White, a man who didn't have the interpersonal skills to be a successful politician, and couldn't handle failure. (I could have done without the movie's suggestion that White was a repressed homosexual himself. Not all anti-gay politicians are closet cases; some of them are just bigots.)
The only disappointing performance in the movie is that of Diego Luna, who plays Milk's second partner, Jack Lira, and it's not entirely his fault. The movie is oddly unsympathetic to Jack, presenting him as a pathetic, clingy, desperately needy man with no redeeming qualities at all; it's impossible to understand what Harvey ever sees in him.
It's startling how strongly the movie resonates with today's politics. When Harvey argues that the campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative (a proposition that would have allowed California schools to fire not only gay teachers, but anyone who even supported gay rights) needed to actually include images and voices of gay people, it's impossible not to look back at the cowardly ad campaign that was run against Proposition 8 this fall, a campaign that also avoided the G-word as much as possible.
Milk is a very fine movie, and shouldn't be missed.