Pros: Period details, screenplay, Sean Penn, Direction
Cons: too few to mention
In Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Milk we get to know Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) as he re-invents himself from a young gay man in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco of the early 1970s into a political activist championing gay rights. We don’t ‘know’ Milk through glimpses of his childhood but rather by watching him transform himself into a person doing something that matters during the last decade of his life.
It’s about a man who in spite of his imperfections and flaws became a well-connected spokesman for gay rights and the first openly gay elected official. We care about him, his search for a meaningful relationship, his cause not only because of Sean Penn’s superb performance or a talented supporting cast but because of a how Dustin Lance Black’s excellent screenplay is directed skillfully with the right balance of subtle documentary style observance and mainstream movie-making technique by Gus Van Sant.
Harvey Milk is an underdog who runs for office and loses many times. He’s almost Jimmy Stewart going to Washington without sentimentality, or corny clichés. His causes and political ambitions shape his life. This emotional fragile but headstrong man risks everything for what he believes in, because he knows he’s destined to make a difference.
The movie begins with, what appears to be old black and white archival footage showing us police raids on gay bars with men covering their faces in shame. We are reminded that less than 40 years ago being openly gay put you at risk at being beaten and/or arrested by the police, not to mention bigots and bored college students could spit on, make fun of or beat up gays without a guilty conscious and without suffering serious consequences when caught. You could be fired from your job, evicted from your apartment and turned down for a bank loan because you were gay.
The first time we meet Sean Penn as Milk he’s talking into a tape recorder because he fears he’s drawn so much attention to himself his life might be in danger and he wants to send a message into the world so his work, his cause will continue.
Josh Brolin portrays Dan White as a conflicted, tortured, mis-understood man-not what anyone expects to see. We know what he winds up doing and as we meet him in this movie, we can understand, even have some empathy for him. It's as if the screenwriter cast him in the role of Judas and surprisingly it resonates.
The script uses conventions wisely, by showing us the humble beginnings of a crusader who says to his lover: "I'm 40 years old and I haven't done a thing I can be proud of."
And the film finds authentic, just right moments like having a political opponent give Harvey Milk some advice away from media lights and campaign managers, showing how two people opposing each other in a political race have also respect each other as people and even help one another to succeed.