DIR: Gus Van Sant • WRI: Dustin Lance Black • PRO: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Michael London • DOP: Harris Savides • ED: Elliot Graham • DES: Bill Groom • CAST: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, James Franco
It seems inevitable that every year cinemagoers will be confronted with a prestigious biopic, complete with a heavily lauded central performance and awards galore. La Vie en Rose, Walk the Line, Ray, A Beautiful Mind, etc. have all come and collected their Academy Awards®, now it is the turn of Milk.
Milk tells the true story of the first openly gay man to be voted into American public office in 1977, Harvey Milk. Those hoping that the film’s divisive director, Gus Van Sant, would abandon the usual confinements of the Hollywood biopic may well be disappointed, as the narrative sticks to the usual tale of a down-on-their-luck hero overcoming his/her adversity to reach his/her goal in an unprecedented manner. While this goes some way to harming the authenticity of the story, it grants the often-aloof director the opportunity to express himself in a more universal manner, resulting in a highly engaging and entertaining film.
There is no surprise that Sean Penn delivers a wonderfully human and magnetic performance in the title role, or that he is supported by a solid ensemble cast, yet the casualness with which these mainly – and often overtly – homosexual characters are presented is incredibly uncharacteristic in such Hollywood fare, and should be applauded (and undoubtedly will be, especially in light of California’s recent Proposition 8 debate echoing the 1978 Proposition 6 debate depicted in Milk). This refreshingly casual approach lends the film a heart, something that is so often neglected in such a conventional biopic. It grounds Milk’s achievements with his love for life, for people, for freedom and is most crucially utilised in the depiction of Milk’s long-term relationship with Scott Smith (as played with delicate poignancy by James Franco). It is this relationship that transforms the closeted, lonely Milk we meet at the start, into the charismatic, fun and optimistically persistent politician who has since become recognised as one of the most significant public figures of the twentieth century. And who will continue to entertain, charm and inspire through this cinematic offering.