At the Michigan

Courtesy of Focus Features

4.5 out of 5 Stars

The obvious film to compare “Milk” with would probably be “Brokeback Mountain.” Both are mainstream, Focus Features-produced films that tout gay issues and aim for awards. Both present progressive idealism set against tumultuous times, and are strong, romantic melodramas. But there’s one slight difference that makes “Milk” far superior to its ideological contemporary: “Milk” has emotion.

Whereas “Brokeback” was an austere and cold effort, “Milk” is an emotional work that deserves to endure. A heartfelt story about human rights and the neglected legacy of openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, “Milk” has a charismatic and affable main character, an insightful history and a sense of intimacy seldom seen in typical Oscar bait.

It’s 1970, New York City. Harvey Milk, portrayed by the effortless Sean Penn, is 40 years old and hasn’t done much in his life as a silent cog. But with a middle-aged desire to bloom and find happiness, Milk decides to flee from the “machine” and re-establish himself in San Francisco.

There, Milk becomes the voice of a grassroots gay movement. But it’s not quick and easy; he begins as just another small business owner looking for equal rights and freedom from harassment. But then Milk starts running for public office. He runs several times for different positions before finally getting elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he encounters his fellow supervisor, the infamous Dan White (google the “Twinkie Defense” after seeing the film.)

Yet “Milk” is never truly about Milk’s political ups and downs. It’s about his infectious idealism and what he meant for human rights in the late 1970s. Articulate, passionate and quite likable, Sean Penn doesn’t just play Milk. Penn embraces him. Milk was about creating a voice that could be heard and understood, and by presenting it in a way that anybody could notice and remember. And with messages like “never blend in” and “you gotta give ’em hope” buttressing Milk’s cause, it’s hard not to fall for the film.

Milk was a gifted speaker with tremendous presence. He’s incredibly engaging here via Penn’s portrayal. And judging by the film, he combined the presence of the Obamas with the charisma of the Clintons. Self-deprecating, approachable and incredibly bright, Penn gets everything honorable and admirable about Milk just right. To watch Penn act here is to see a performer working at his peak.

“Milk” scores as an accessible biopic thanks to lyrical camerawork, 1970s historical antiquity and a great supporting cast. Also contributing to the success is the script by new screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (TV’s “Big Love”). But, overall, Penn and director Gus Van Sant steal the show.

After directing indie gems like “My Own Private Idaho” and “Paranoid Park” and mainstream hits like “Good Will Hunting” and “Finding Forrester,” Van Sant finally found a balance with “Milk.” Between mass appeal and obscure art, “Milk” is a film that deserves both applause and guilt-free tears. Van Sant, a gifted visualist, allegedly wanted to make this film for more than a decade, and it shows.

It’s almost perfect. The only setback? James Franco.

Yes, he’s attractive, but “Milk” proves he’s a middling actor. Working with a stock on-and-off love story with Harvey, he’s just another popular face in a film in which he doesn’t belong. Think Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback.”

“Milk” is an ideologically American film about great progressive values and fighting to be heard. Milk was a man who fortunately was listened to, and the film shows the beauty of standing up and speaking out.

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