Milk, The biopic of Harvey Milk - politician, activist and the first openly gay man to be elected to US public office, cruelly assassinated by a bitter colleague in 1978 - was a long time coming. First slated as an Oliver Stone produced, Gus Van Sant directed feature, entitled 'The Mayor of Castro Street', in 1991 it was reported that comic actor Robin Williams would play Milk. Van Sant subsequently left the project in '93 after numerous other A listers were attached to star in the lead role including James Woods, Richard Gere, Al Pacino and Daniel Day Lewis. Stuck in development hell, with Bryan Singer the last name to be attached in the mid 00s, Van Sant set out to make his own Milk biopic based on a new script by Dustin Lance Black which would eventually win a screenplay Oscar. By 2007, Sean Penn signed up to play Milk, a stunning performance that earned him the Oscar for Best Actor. The film was released in 2008 to coincide with the 2008 Californian referendum on gay marriage.
I'm not a big fan of Sean Penn in general, but I cannot deny his skill as an actor in certain roles. It's perhaps best not to dwell on his somewhat ignorant yet 'right on' personal politics that see him tie himself in knots to appease people. For example, whilst he rightly earned much respect and plaudits for his sensitive and committed performance here it's worth pointing out that Penn's respect in such quarters wasn't universal, with some citing his mutual support of the anti-gay rights Cuban government, who have a track record for placing homosexuals in latter day concentration camps, is hypocritical at worst and plain dumb at best.
There's a strong supporting cast including James Franco and, one of my favourite US actresses, Alison Pill who proves what a versatile actress she is which only further puzzles me that she hasn't been given a more prominent role beyond the excellent HBO series The Newsroom.
Much of what impresses me in Van Sant's film is the very naturalistic vibe it possesses, with scenes that don't necessarily feel like 'acting' and a subtle yet committed and authentic depiction of mid to late 70s San Francisco. The screenplay is an assuredly good one that benefits greatly from the research Black invested in it, making the viewer feel like we're really witnessing the experiences of the people depicted at that very time and place. It vibrantly captures a moment, an inspiring step forward, perfectly.
It is in the film's third act, that we perhaps see it struggle. With a strong depiction of Milk on the outside trying to get in, the film starts to wobble a little as it details his role in office towards its conclusion. Perhaps the flaw is that much of what has gone before sets the viewer up in terms of strong political narrative and a sense of an impending martyrdom that so many biopics of tragic public figures are often steeped in. However the demise of Harvey Milk doesn't easily fit such narrative tropes. He was assassinated, it seems, not for his campaigns or for his beliefs, but for a perceived slight from a bitter and humiliated colleague (Josh Brolin) who may or may not have been a closeted homosexual. There's almost too much emphasis or what if's trying to be placed on what was a most arbitrary and needless murder - not only of Harvey Milk but also of the San Franciscan Mayor George Moscone.