Review of “Milk”

Black spoke with the day after the film’s
world premiere in San Francisco
last month, and said that the parallels between the two propositions weren’t
really that big of a coincidence. Even if Prop 8 hadn’t come along when it did,
he said, there will always be another one in its place.

"And each time there is one of these
propositions," he told me, "it kind of gives us an opportunity to get
out there and say, ‘Hey, this is who we are,’ and break down some of those
myths that Harvey
talked about so much."

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk

Photo courtesy: Focus Features

There’s a great deal of Oscar buzz about Milk, and it will certainly be nominated
for its acting if nothing else. But if they gave an Academy Award for
"Film Most Likely to Change the Country," it would have no
competition, and not because of any influence it’s likely to have on audiences
not already in support of LGBT rights.

It’s on our own community, where many young queer people are
barely aware of Harvey‘s
legacy, that the film may have the greatest impact. That’s partly because it
teaches them about a period in our history they didn’t really know about
before, but it’s more because it makes them care personally about Harvey and
his friends, lovers, and enemies.

That emotional payload is what gives the film most of its
heart, and what animates that heart are the passionate and brilliant
performances of the entire cast.

The phrase "Oscar-worthy" is rapidly becoming a
cliché about Sean Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk, and it’s richly deserved.
And actually, Penn doesn’t portray Harvey. He quite simply
becomes Harvey Milk, with every gesture of his hand, every turn of phrase,
every radiant smile.

James Franco also gives a stellar performance as Harvey‘s lover, Scott
Smith. The two men moved to San Francisco
together, and while their romantic relationship didn’t survive Harvey‘s political ambitions, their love for
each other did. From a long distance shot of an achingly tender Castro St. kiss to
their sleepy late night phone conversation the night before Harvey was killed, the two actors convey a
compelling sense of intimacy in every scene they share.

James Franco (left) as Scott Smith
Photo credit: Phil Bray/Focus Features

Performances in the smaller roles stand out as well. Emile
Hirsch (Into the Wild) as Milk
political protégé Cleve Jones is nothing short of dazzling. Pill infuses Anne
Kronenberg’s character with emotional impact far out of proportion to her time
on screen. Diego Luna (Y tu mama tambien, Havana Nights)
delivers an unsettling turn as another of Harvey‘s
lovers, Jack Lira. And no one but Penn may have captured the essence of the
real person he’s playing more than Josh Brolin (W) as Milk’s killer, fellow San
city supervisor Dan White.

Josh Brolin as Dan White

Photo credit: Phil Bray/Focus Features

In the end, Milk
has a bit of everything and something for everyone: a love story, a history
lesson, a tribute to a fallen leader, and a rallying cry for change and
justice. It has actors and directors at the heights of their crafts, and a
script that finds its way through its epic story with deceptive ease.

And above all, it has what Harvey Milk believed was the most
important thing of all: hope.

Read our interview with Alison Pill, Anne Kronenberg,
and Gus Van Sant

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