I loved Emile Hirsch in Milk. This may not be a traditional way to start a review about a film starring Sean Penn, but despite excellent performances elicited from Penn and good ones from James Franco and Josh Brolin, I loved Hirsch the best. Of course, I love Emile in almost everything, and have made it a life-goal to become the next Mrs. Hirsch, but please, don't let that color my review. From his mop of curly brown hair, to his coke bottle glasses, I adored seeing Emile go gay. Now, that I've gotten my praise for Hirsch out of the way, lets get down to brass tacks. Sean Penn's done it again. He literally becomes Harvey Milk, assassinated gay rights activist, from head to toe. If I had to pick one actor in Hollywood who is a true chameleon, it would have to be Penn, hands down. We've seen him play everything from a grief-stricken mafia boss, to a mentally challenged single father, and even a pizza-loving surfer dude. As Harvey, Penn gives a much more joyful performance than I have seen him do in a long time. His last few characters (21 Grams and Mystic River) have been solemn men with hard exteriors, but in Milk, he glides over the audience like a cool, refreshing beverage. You drink up Milk, but before you say "can I have some more please," the joyful presence that lights up the screen, is extinguished. Penn is able to showcase different sides to Harvey throughout the film. You can see him flamboyantly emerging in San Francisco gay culture, but also retreating to his kitchen, contemplating thoughts of his own assassination. Some may find themselves feeling more attached to the character of Milk than others, but I think it would be difficult for anyone to not feel emotional at his tragic death.
A big reason Milk resonates so much with audiences is the reality which the characters are based in. I don't mean that they're just based on real people, but that the performances feel relatively un-jaded by film. These are people you know, minus the seventies clothing. The fight they fought then, is one we're still fighting now. With the recent voting of Prop 8, it appears that little has changed from Harvey's "recruiting" days to now. Gay people may be entitled to privacy regarding their orientation in relation to their jobs or health care, but they're still not allowed the same rights I have as a heterosexual. Who knows how much the film will ultimately do in changing anyone's perspective, but it does reiterate the importance of never giving up on the issues that matter. I can only hope that the people who most need to see the film, will, but my skeptical side thinks probably not. Beyond its political message, Milk is also a love story. It's about the love affair that people had with Harvey, and how that enabled him to have short-lived, yet successful, effect on real lives. He saved people, and all of it might never have happened if not for a chance meeting with a handsome boy named Scott.
Scott is played by James Franco, and while it's nice to see Franco show us yet another side to himself, I wouldn't say he stands out in this film (for a better example of Franco's versatility see Pineapple Express). However, I can see why Gus Van Sant cast him. He's a likable, good looking guy, who emanates real warmth throughout the entire movie. You can appreciate the relationship he develops with Harvey, but it never quite sweeps you off your feet. As an alternative to the warmth shown by Franco, Josh Brolin plays his cards close to the vest. It's been a good couple of years for Brolin, hitting the big time with No Country for Old Men, and recently starring in Oliver Stone's W. As San Francisco City Supervisor, he keeps you at a distance, but lets you in just enough to know he'll explode any minute. Again, Brolin's performance fits in the film, but was not a particular stand out. Side bar characters played by Alison Pill and Diego Luna end up generating more original and memorable performances, even if featured in only a handful of scenes. Lesser known Jospeh Cross is also great, as well as Denis O'Hare, who plays Senator John Briggs (aka devil spawn of Anita Bryant).
With Milk representing Van Sant's return to mainstream cinema, I wondered how indie it would end up feeling. The man has already proved himself capable of helming a bigger budget production, but the last few years he's spent doing films like Elephant and Last Days (both disturbing and unbelievably quiet), so I had to wonder if he would turn Milk into a dramatically paced 24 hours leading up to the murder. Luckily, Van Sant revisited his roots, and gave us a joyous yet still calamitous retelling of a man's life, who deserves to be remembered. Milk draws you in to a world of the past, but frequently reminds you that history has a way of repeating itself.
Short and Sweet
Larger than life man collides with gay rights movement, and suddenly what was happening on Castro Street exploded over the rest of the country. The end of his story is not the reason worth telling it. Harvey Milk's life makes for a great story because of the people that surrounded him, and the things that he accomplished while still alive. He was inspiration for so many from the past, and maybe this movie can help him become an inspiration for people now. Sean Penn once again lights up the screen along with protege Emile Hirsch. See the film and experience warmth and heart that radiates from the entire cast (except Josh Brolin).
"Can two men reproduce?"
"No, but God knows we keep trying." - Dan White and Harvey Milk
"Are you on uppers or something?"
"No, this is just plain old me." - Scott Smith and Harvey Milk