Review: 'Milk'

Biopic about the first openly gay man to hold a major political office in America is bolstered by Sean Penn's superb performance as Harvey Milk.

Courtesy of Phil Bray / Focus Features
Sean Penn stars as real-life gay rights icon Harvey Milk in director Gus Van Sant's MILK, a Focus Features release.

San Francisco City supervisor Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to hold major political office in America. In 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, he was shot dead in City Hall by Dan White, an unbalanced fellow supervisor.

"Milk," which stars Sean Penn, is about the last eight years of Milk's life, and it's less a biopic than a call to arms. As directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dustin Lance Black, it's an attempt to both humanize and canonize the martyred activist. Essentially the film is saying that, at a time when civil rights for gays are still under attack, there is no one of Milk's charisma on the scene to lead the charge.

The excellent Oscar-winning 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" did a much better job of bringing his story to life than this dramatized hodgepodge, which mixes fictional footage with snatches of newsreel clips from the era. We keep getting yanked back and forth between the actual and the virtual, and the actual wins out just about every time. (There is no way, for example, for Van Sant to compete with the famous live TV clip of Dianne Feinstein outside City Hall breaking the news of the shootings, so he wisely doesn't try.)

A grim note is set from the very beginning when we see Milk dictating his will on tape and expressing his fears of being assassinated. Although the filmmakers can be criticized for heightening the sacrificial lamb aspects of Milk's life, it's also true that Milk himself felt he was predestined to die for the cause. Still, the double dose of doom here is a bit much. It saps Milk of his vitality by deifying his fears and converting his sadness into a state of grace.

Penn does his best to balance the mundane with the hagiographic. It's a tribute to his performance that we recognize early on that Milk, despite his preening, was a deeply unhappy man. Even when he's grandstanding, there's something closed off about him, something unreachable. Fighting a statewide referendum banning homosexuals from teaching in public schools, Milk finds his voice and becomes a crusader, but the soapbox is just a stage prop. He only looks comfortable in his skin when he's withdrawing into some private inner place.

Employing a thick New York accent and sporting a nose that has been slightly elongated through prosthetics, Penn at first seems like a caricature – a theatrical conceit. But he grows into the theatricality and gives it a human dimension. He gives us a long look behind the mask.

His counterpart is Josh Brolin's Dan White, a stocky, square-faced hunk. Brolin has really come into his own in recent years, with performances in "No Country for Old Men" and "American Gangster" that would do anybody proud. (I was less enamored of him as Dubya in Oliver Stone's "W," although that was an impossible assignment.)

Brolin is the male equivalent of those actresses (like Michelle Pfeiffer early in her career) who aren't taken seriously as artists because they're too pretty. His matinee idol mug has a vaguely retro feel – he looks like a refugee of the Rock Hudson/Robert Wagner era. But Brolin is remarkably talented, and in "Milk" he makes entirely believable White's slide into a sullen rage. In some ways it's a more difficult role than Milk because he has fewer colors in his palette. Van Sant tries to simplify White's psychology by implying that White was a closeted homosexual but Brolin's performance rises above such reductions.

I wish "Milk" had been more of a character piece and less of a manifesto. The movie, which has occasional bouts of sexual explicitness, portrays the Bay Area activist as almost totally lacking in guile or hypocrisy. There is nothing self-aggrandizing about him. It's all a bit too good to be true. "Milk" is an agitprop fantasy about the selflessness of sainthood. If anybody but Penn was playing the saint, we'd probably feel as if we were being sold a bill of goods. Instead, he just about pulls it off. Such is the treachery of talent. Grade: B (Rated R for language, some sexual content, and brief violence.)

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