Sean Penn has, shall we say, such a happy ol' time in the title role of "Milk" that I hate to be so biopicky about the film.
Audiences may be a bit surprised to find the usually intense, usually brooding Method man that is Penn playing somebody as easygoing, jovial and upbeat as Harvey Milk, the gay politician/civil rights revolutionary who was assassinated in 1978. With his generally beefy frame considerably toned down, and his facial muscles working overtime to give us that Penn rarity known as a smile, he re-creates Milk as a menschy yet determined freedom fighter, breaking down closet doors by showing Joe Public that those scary gays have been among us since Day One.
A project nearly two decades in the making (directors Oliver Stone and Bryan Singer were once attached, while Robin Williams and Tom Cruise were considered to play the lead), "Milk" is certainly shrewd and assured in its filmmaking. Gus Van Sant steadily directs this film as if his reputation were on the line. (Since he is one of the most acclaimed gay filmmakers in the biz, you get the feeling that it is.) With cinematographer Harris Savides ("Zodiac") working his urbane, throwback-naturalistic talents, Van Sant follows Milk as he moves from New York to San Francisco, where he opens a camera shop on the city's famed Castro Street, which eventually becomes the hangout for the city's gay brethren. The community-organizing Milk soon gets politics it in his head, eventually becoming the city's first openly gay public official.
With a lead performance from Penn that's a joy to behold (as well as top-notch work from supporting players like Emile Hirsch as Milk's budding-activist ally and the keeps-getting-better James Franco as Milk's long-suffering boyfriend) and Van Sant coming with his most competent, detailed filmmaking in ages, "Milk" has all the components for a unique, award-racking true story. So, why am I not feeling the script?
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"Big Love" writer Dustin Lance Black seeks to capture Milk, flaws and all, as his mission to make homosexuals stand up and come out transforms him into City Hall's most manipulative mad dog, as well as an absent significant other at home. (A subplot with Milk and an unhinged lover, played by Diego Luna, is more tedious and underwritten than revealing.) While Black has a penchant for providing us with the drama, he often has trouble breaking down the facts. There are two instances where Milk is ready to give up, but he finds strength to go on after a phone call from a gay kid telling him to do so. But not just any gay kid, a gay kid IN A WHEELCHAIR! Because I'm sure the only way Milk could've ever become successful in his endeavors is if he occasionally got pep talks from a disabled gay kid.
And by the time Milk begins his contentious relationship with rival city supervisor/future assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin), it's a relationship that barely seems prominent. Black doesn't know whether to make White a repressed closet case with a thing for Milk or a jealous alpha-male who's bitter that Milk has beaten him at his own game. For a guy convicted of voluntary manslaughter, instead of first-degree murder, after his lawyers argued he consumed too much sugar (later known as the notorious "Twinkie defense"), it would have been nice for Black to flesh him out more.
When it comes to a Great Man Biopic like "Milk," an eerily relevant movie that couldn't have come along at a better time -- with ballot initiatives, such as California's Proposition 8, addressing gay marriage -- you take the good with the bad. Besides, Sean Penn smiles -- that's an event in and of itself.