MILK (***3/4) - Starring Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Alison Pill, Victor Garber and Denis O'Hare.
Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Sean Penn... just when I thought this actor couldn't get any more self-serious, along comes a movie where he completely reinvents himself. It helps that he had a real-life person he could study and mimic but he goes deeper, which is good, because the script leaves him somewhat enigmatic/saintlike, but Penn is able to make Harvey Milk a full-blooded human being.
Gus Van Sant, whose style can be frustrating for me, uses what he's figured out from his last four cinematical experiments to create a skillful, conventional biopic that wisely focusses on just the last few years of Harvey's life. We don't need to see him as a child; we don't need to see him closeted in his twenties. We meet him the night before his 40th birthday, when he hooks up with Scott Smith (James Franco), and the two go west to San Francisco, to live life in the open.
Frustrated with the police brutality he sees, Harvey decides to run for public office. He fails, and fails, and fails again, putting a strain on his relationship with Scott. After a fortuitous redistricting, Harvey's able to win, and he is elected the same time as Dan White (Josh Brolin), a man who ran on ridding the city of "social degenerates" but says he meant druggies, now that he has to work with the openly gay Harvey Milk.
I thought the movie was pretty fair to Dan White. We see his aggravation build as Harvey keeps breaking his promises to him, that suppressed rage pushed further down, ready to explode if Dan gets pushed too far, and Brolin does a really good job here. The real villain of the movie is Anita Bryant, and like Good Night and Good Luck with Joe McCarthy, the movie only uses real footage of her, as she campaigns against these homosexuals who want to destroy America, supporting laws in states that would ban gays from teaching in public schools, and making it legal to fire someone from any job over their sexual orientation.
But the star of the show is Penn, and if he didn't already have an Oscar for Mystic River, he'd be the absolute front-runner for Best Actor here. His mannerisms, his giddyness, his friendliness, all of this is representative of how different it is from the usual Penn. When Harvey's giving political speeches, I thought about the same speeches Penn gave in the All the King's Men remake. Completely different.
It makes me want to see Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler that much more to see what his competition is.