Be it fact or fiction, once in every while a film comes along that jolts you out of your weariness and cynicism, making you breathe in life in all its messy glory and challenging you to do better in even a small way when you leave your seat. This is 2009's example.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to hold senior public office in the Unites States, becoming one of San Francisco's City Supervisors in 1977. In 1978, he, along with the city's mayor, George Moscone, was shot dead by Dan White, a former supervisor who had resigned his post and then sought to be reinstated. Milk's story will be new to many on this side of the Atlantic but it is one of the most uplifting and inspiring examples of a man against a system. And Gus Van Sant's film is the most worthy of tributes to him.
We meet Milk (Penn) on his 40th birthday as he encounters the love of his life Scott Smith (Franco) for the first time. Feeling he hasn't done a thing to be proud of, Milk decides to relocate to San Francisco with Smith and start over. They open their own camera shop in the city's Castro District and start building a customer base with the area's gay community. But while San Francisco is seen as a liberal haven, for Milk and his friends there's a lot of room for improvement and so begins a political career that reaches out and challenges in equal measure.
'Milk' starts with archive black-and-white footage of gay men being led out of bars by American police officers, hiding their faces from the cameras as they're put in the back of vans - a reminder of just how far things have come in a couple of decades. Then, in a film that deftly weaves the personal story with the political one, Van Sant shows us just what a major part Harvey Milk was in this victory, and reminds us that for all the progress, isolation and prejudice don't disappear. It's one of the most moving and accomplished biopics of recent years, beautifully paced and brilliantly acted.
Some have said that his portrayal of Harvey Milk is the performance of Penn's career; that's debatable, but it is at the very least as strong as any of the other films people may point to as alternatives. Once again his submersion in the character is flawless and if you have the chance to see any footage of the late campaigner before you go to see this film your admiration will grow with every scene. Whether surrounded by supporters or sitting alone in a kitchen recounting his story into a tape recorder (as the real Milk did), Penn's ability to draw you in to someone's life remains as powerful.
Throughout his career, Van Sant has returned to the theme of friendship and 'Milk' shows the changes that one person can bring on the mind and actions of another. The dialogue has that authenticity of real people talking, real footage is expertly used throughout and the fact that many of Milk's friends met the actors who portray them and script writer Justin Lance Writer has added greatly to the film, making the supporting cast very special, too. While biopics have the tendency to be slaves to running time in making some people one-dimensional, everyone here is layered - even Dan White, who could've ended up as some kind of cartoon villain, but is instead brought back to life as a complex individual, Brolin's portrayal and physical transformation as remarkable as his recent work on 'W'.
Harvey Milk's belief was that, despite his success in attracting votes from across the spectrum, he was never really a candidate: the gay movement was the candidate. He said that his journey was about giving hope to some kid in some small town who would see what he had accomplished and realise that he didn't have to hide or live in fear and could go even further. Over 30 years later Van Sant has accomplished the same thing. This is his best film since 'Good Will Hunting', and one that deserves to be seen by just as many