November 3, 2008 / 6:34 AM / 10 years ago

Sean Penn brings extraordinary depth to "Milk"

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - “Milk” is the first great film to look at civil rights from the perspective of the gay movement.

Cast member Sean Penn and his wife, actress Robin Wright Penn, pose for photographers as they arrive for the world premiere of the film "Milk," at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, California October 28, 2008 REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

The subject, of course, is the late, charismatic San Francisco gay activist and politician of the 1970s, Harvey Milk, played with extraordinary depth and wisdom by Sean Penn. “Milk” resists bumper-sticker identifications: Yes, it’s a biopic, a love story, a civil rights movie and sharp political and social commentary. But it transcends any single genre as a very human document that touches first and foremost on the need to give people hope.

The audience for this film is all over the map but probably modest — the gay and lesbian community, for sure, and anyone with politics on the brain. And anyone who cares about acting too, not just for Penn but persuasive performances from a large and talented cast. The Focus Features release opens November 26.

The film is superbly crafted, covering huge amounts of time, people and the zeitgeist without a moment of lapsed energy or inattention to detail. Even the opening moments — black-and-white archival footage of cops rousting men covering their faces from gay bars of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the kind of harassment that led to the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York — offer a poignant reminder of what was not that long ago.

The narrative device is a tape recording Milk makes in his final and 48th year to be played in the event of his death. (He received many death threats.) Here he tells the story of his eight years in San Francisco, how he moved there with his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco), founded a camera shop that became a center for the gay community and took up activism to become the “Mayor of Castro Street.”

Director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Black cover a lot of distance with a simple approach: The key people in Milk’s life deliver the key moments, political strategies emerge from personal convictions and emotions spring from the close relationships among the activists. Thus, the film brings in young street punk-turned-activist Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch); Milk’s surprising new lover, Jack Lira (Diego Luna); his campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill); and fellow supervisor and eventual murderer Dan White (Josh Brolin).

Black’s screenplay is based solely on his own original research and interviews, and it shows: The film is richly flavored with anecdotal incidents and details. “Milk” surfaces in a season filled with movies based on real lives, but this is the first one that inspires a sense of intimacy with its subjects.

This allows for unusual moments, such as a couple of phone conversations Milk has with a handicapped gay youth from the Midwest or his electrifying observation that he looked into White’s haunted eyes and believes White may be “one of us.”

Van Sant moves beyond his experimental filmmaking of the last half-decade for a restrained, unembellished approach. The style is classic filmmaking of the ‘70s, a film that watches and observes everything and everybody. He makes excellent use of archival footage throughout the period film, especially such images as the Castro district undergoing sweeping demographic changes and the awful moment of San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s City Hall steps announcement of the assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Milk.

Penn is one of those actors in complete control of his entire instrument. He uses voice, body movements, line readings and something indefinable within his own psyche to transmigrate into another person’s body and mind. Franco, meanwhile, demonstrates the dilemma of a person who signed up for a committed relationship but not necessarily a revolution.

Luna is loopy and sometimes, seemingly, just looped as Milk’s erratic boyfriend. Brolin is surprisingly sympathetic as a man in over his head, unable to differentiate between friends and foes and clinging to traditional mores in a city caught in the ferment of radical change.

With top contributions from his entire crew, Van Sant captures in “Milk” an entire panoply of clashing passions, opinions and personalities within the gay rights movement that changed a country forever but drove a wedge between its people that remains to this day.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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