Cast, director make ‘Milk’ a worthy biopic

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Tuesday, November 25, 2008 2:34pm
  • Life

After the Oscar-winning success of the gut-wrenching documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” in 1984, Hollywood almost immediately set about planning a narrative version of the story.

From 1984 to 2008 is a long stretch. The project passed through the hands of many filmmakers and actors, but it’s hard to think of a better combination than the one that arrives now — just in time to collect a likely bushel of year-end awards.

When Harvey Milk was elected a San Francisco city supervisor in 1977, he was one of the first openly gay politicians to gain political office in the United States. He and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor, in November 1978.

Although “Milk” falls comfortably into the pattern of Hollywood’s tragic biopics, the presence of director Gus Van Sant guarantees that the film will have a degree of texture or quirkiness that it wouldn’t get from a well-meaning hack.

Sean Penn plays Milk, whom we meet in the early 1970s as a mostly closeted member of what was then called the Establishment. Getting mildly radicalized and growing his hair long, Milk moves to San Francisco with a boyfriend (James Franco), where community frustrations (he owned a camera shop) in the city’s Castro District lead him into politics.

Much of the film actually plays as an enjoyable primer on grassroots political organizing, as Milk realizes that if the gay community voted in an organized way they could wield considerable clout in the city. A rally against an anti-gay initiative (this was the era of Anita Bryant’s opposition to gay rights) will likely ring bells in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 8 campaign.

Van Sant, Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black work hard not to have Harvey Milk become a plaster saint. For instance, Milk’s judgment in partners is questioned in his loyalty an unstable young man (Diego Luna) who shows up at the camera shop/campaign office one night and stays in Milk’s orbit for a while.

Sean Penn has never been a cuddly actor, but his delighted embrace of Milk’s cheerfully liberated style is fun to watch. His performance keeps Milk a lively, imperfect man, not a simple martyr to a cause. Franco, Emile Hirsch and Victor Garber give excellent support.

Josh Brolin is more impressive as the murderer, Dan White, than he was as George W. Bush earlier this year. White was actually found guilty of the lesser charge of “manslaughter” for a variety of reasons, including a diminished-capacity defense based on his diet — the famous “Twinkie defense” — but let’s agree that “murderer” is a good description.

The film does an able job of suggesting a variety of reasons for White’s actions, not mere bigotry — for instance, that he was disgruntled about Milk’s perceived disloyalty, or jealous of his popularity. Or just weird.

Oddly, “Milk” is not as emotionally affecting as the 1984 documentary — but it will surely do its job. Maybe in the cyclical nature of history and politics, Milk’s story needed to wait this long to re-emerge.

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