Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
Diego Luna as Jack Lira
James Franco as Scott Smith
Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones
Josh Brolin as Dan White
Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg
Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone
Denis O’Hare as State Senator John Briggs
Joseph Cross as Dick Pabich
Stephen Spinella as Rick Stokes
Lucas Grabeel as Danny Nicoletta
Brandon Boyce as Jim Rivaldo
Howard Rosenman as David Goodstein
Kelvin Yu as Michael Wong
Jeff Koons as Art Agnos
Ted Jan Roberts as Dennis Peron
Boyd Holbrook as Denton Smith
Frank Robinson as Himself
Allan Baird as Himself
Tom Ammiano as Himself
Carol Ruth Silver as Thelma
Hope Tuck as Mary Anne White
Steven Wiig as McConnely
Ashlee Temple as Dianne Feinstein
Wendy Tremont King as Carol Ruth Silver
Kelvin Han Yee as Gordon Lau
Robert Chimento as Phil Burton

Directed by Gus van Sant

Typically great performances by Sean Penn as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin as his political nemesis Dan White makes Gus Van Sant’s return to mainstream filmmaking one of the more fascinating political biopics in recent memory.

At the age of 40, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) moved to San Francisco and set up a camera shop in the city’s Castro District, where he quickly gathered a crowd of supporters among the gay community. Soon, Harvey’s local activism leads to him entering the political race, as he tries to run as the city’s first openly-gay politician, facing many who are opposed to his lifestyle. As Harvey gets further into politics, rifts form between him and his two lovers Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack (Diego Luna), but he had bigger problems dealing with fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) who has problems with Harvey’s lifestyle.

This being the season to roll out all the awards-worthy biopics, there certainly have been less intriguing and satisfying efforts than this look at the later years of Harvey Milk and his rise through the San Francisco political system as one of the country’s first openly gay politicians. It marks the return of Gus Van Sant to relatively high-profile studio fare from years of making obscure experimental films, and he should be welcomed back to mainstream Hollywood with open arms after this impressive effort.

Milk isn’t necessarily a biopic, being that there’s a 40-year gap in Milk’s life that’s barely even referenced, instead being about his far too short political career in San Francisco. It starts just before his 40th birthday when he meets his long-time lover Scott Smith (James Franco) in a New York subway, and after a birthday tryst, they lay in bed talking about their plans to move to San Francisco. There, Harvey immediately becomes a beloved local figure after opening a camera shop in the mostly gay Castro district and becoming a local Godfather able to sway the homosexual community to help local Teamsters while fighting for gay equality. Eventually, he realizes that running for public office is the only way to make real changes, and along with his team of supportive friends, he begins a number of campaigns for district supervisor.

It’s been many years since we’ve seen Gus Van Sant making a film that uses a more traditional structure and storytelling narrative, and for a lot of that, we can credit the strength of the script by Dustin Lance Black (“Big Love”) which covers a lot of aspects of Milk’s life once he started getting into politics. Even those who don’t know much about San Francisco and California politics of the time are brought up to speed fairly quickly without it ever feeling as cold or clinical or formulaic as other political biopics tend to be. One way Van Sant accomplishes this is by blending actual television footage from the time, mostly of Anita Bryant’s television appearances attacking gay rights, to set up the environment in which Harvey was running. It’s something that works similarly to the way real footage of Joe McCarthy was used in George Clooney’s “Good Night, And Good Luck.”

It’s clearly evident how well-loved Milk was, both among the straight and gay populace of San Francisco, due to all the things he accomplished during his short time in office, and it’s almost impossible to ignore the relevance Harvey’s fight against California Proposition 6, an attempt to fire all gay teachers from the school systems, has to the state’s recent struggle with Prop. 8. One can easily understand why some might be disappointed this film wasn’t released earlier to help rally those who might not understand the implications that law passing might have on so many.

Even with the political undercurrents and their relevance to today, all of that tends to take a backseat to Sean Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk, a performance that’s nothing short of a revelation. After seeing him playing tough guys and anti-heroes, it’s nice to see the far-too-serious actor smiling and playing a lighter role, that of a man who clearly loved life. It’s a decision that behooves Penn as an actor, as he gives one of his strongest performances, not only emulating Harvey’s mannerisms and delivering some of his better known rally speeches, but also in quieter moments, narrating the film as he lays his last will to tape. It feels like a far more transformative role for Penn that hopefully will impact future decisions.

The most interesting aspect of Harvey’s story is his tenuous relationship with Dan White, an ex-fireman who becomes a supervisor at the same time as Harvey. As has hard as they try to get along and work together, White clearly has issues with Harvey’s sexuality, even though at times, it seems to be implied that White may be somewhat in the closet himself. Regardless, it’s another underplayed performance by Josh Brolin that’s extremely effective.

Their two performances might leave the most impact, but this is clearly an ensemble piece with Van Sant assembling an impressive cast to represent Harvey’s supporters and confidants. James Franco gives a particularly daring performance as his supportive lover Scott Smith, a role that requires a lot of intimate scenes with Penn. Emile Hirsch is decent as Cleve Jones, who contributed to the research for the film, while Allison Pill is good as Anne Kronenberg, Harvey’s lesbian campaign manager, though they’re more background characters than the others. In fact, the only real weak link in the movie might be Diego Luna, who plays Scott’s replacement Jack in such an annoying manner that you’ll almost be relieved when he suddenly leaves the picture.

If you’re bothered by the thought of watching realistic homoerotic sexuality, you might not be the right audience for this movie, since Van Sant has never been one to filter or water down the sexual content in his films and we get more than a few scenes of Harvey and his lovers “at play.” These scenes are also where we see the experimental aspect of Van Sant’s recent filmmaking decisions come to the fore, having brought along cinematographer Harris Savides, whom he first teamed with during his experimental phase. Savides quite masterfully is able to switch gears between the film’s different moods and keep the movie looking consistent, and some might be even more pleasantly surprised to see Danny Elfman’s name on the score, since most of the music is very different from what we’ve previously heard from the prolific film composer.

We’re not going to assume that every person reading this review will be aware of Harvey’s fate or its aftermath, but even knowing the basic facts can’t prepare you for the shocking climax, but the impact of Harvey’s passings gives you a good sense how important he was to activists for gay rights and how having someone like him in office these days might be sorely missed.

The Bottom Line:
Gus Van Sant has done an exceptional job with his return to more straight-forward filmmaking with an important film about a politician who only entered the public consciousness after he died, leaving far too many straight people unaware about how important he was to the cause of the gay and lesbian community. This film does a good job rectifying that, and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time.