Politics is not fun. The elections are all around us, and while it may be many things, the democracy-in-motion circus is not fun. You can make fun of politicians, but how many politicians can you say are genuinely fun? Harvey Milk, as played by Sean Penn, is a weird one - he is the personification of sweetness, charisma, playfulness and opportunism. He is a fun politician, and not in a voyeuristic way either, and is an interesting character.
As history (and the film) tells it, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) quit his regular job in the early '70s and moved to San Francisco with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco), during the thick of the gay rights movement. From an area in the city called the Castro, he built coalitions, fought for rights, and made a lot of friends. In 1978, he was shot by ex-city supervisor Dan White (Brolin). In between he accomplished a lot, including running for office three times, and winning the fourth time, becoming the first openly gay man in America to be elected to a public office.
His death at the hands of a fellow board member has become a symbol for political calvary, but the film refuses to jingo-ize the man's story, treating the subject matter with maturity and an air of light-heartedness and open optimism, which is so refreshing in a political film. Sean Penn's portrayal is resolutely human - always making Milk real. His gregariousness is balanced with his vulnerability, his charm is balanced with his poignant world view, his compassion is balanced with his ambition â€" indeed, Penn deserved the statue.
It's not all Penn - the supporting cast is hugely entertaining, and always spot on with the tone of the film. Josh Brolin's simmering anger is real and apparent. Emile Hirsch is such a wildcard - his performance starts off small, and then takes over the screen so completely, that you don't see anything else than him on the screen. Oh, and James Franco. That man has, post Spiderman 3
and Pineapple Express, become a dangerous presence. So complete is his presence that he always overshadows the main lead's performance. Milk is no exception.
Gus Van Sant is a master with people - even the bit parts are filled with engaging and genuinely entertaining acting jobs. Intercut between actual '70s footage and masterfully recreated '70s San Francisco, Van Sant's vision is so complete that you often can't tell the difference. It's not a technical accomplishment, either - it's a tonal accomplishment. The tone of the film is complete, and revolves around the personality of Milk itself.
Dustin Lance Black's writing is crisp, though he does tend to keep the scenarios to a minimum and is interested in telling the story only via loosely connected vignettes. The writing also tends to hero-worship Milk at certain points, but that is balanced by Penn's humble portrayal. I'd also single out the background score as being effective, but not memorable, but really, this film is nothing but accomplished on every level.
The flip side is also that the movie is so nice
, it rarely gets to the issue at hand. There is no impact throughout the film, and while the movie seems timely, it never seems like it is saying anything. The palette of the film lacks the courage to bring debate to the table. All it does is calls it like it was, not interested in calling it like it is
Nonetheless, it is a well-made film, and feels largely fun. It's that rare movie - a well-made film that entertains, make you think, and is based on real life incidents. Here's hoping Ram Gopal Varma watches this one and takes notes.