Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Allison Pill
Director: Gus Van Sant
If Gus Van Sant were French, someone would already have made a statue of him.
Starting with Drugstore Cowboy (or earlier) and moving through this year’s Paranoid Park, he arguably has created as many outstanding films as any American director of the indie generation (outside of that stretch from Good Will Hunting to Finding Forester when his films made money and every too-serious filmgoer considered him a sellout.) But he’s never really mentioned as an artist of that stature.
Van Sant's best film at balancing his mainstream voice and his avant garde tendencies is Milk, a powerful new biopic of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who in the seventies became the first openly homosexual public official in the United States.
Milk is a better gay film than Brokeback Mountain and a better political film than Sean Penn’s recent stabs like All the King’s Men. While it sometimes strays a little close to hagiography, Van Sant masters Milk's life and voice. Unlike many straightforward biopics, Milk captures its character in a melange of interesting cinema. The best moment has Milk discussing a murder with a police officer, shot as a reflection in the shine of a whistle. His effort is matched and then doubled by Penn, who gives us both his gentle and righteous soul and the hard-nosed politician at the core of this trailblazer.
The film has two weaknesses. The first half is in a rush to get somewhere. It glosses over events that looked like they would be interesting to explore. It's the rare film running more than two hours that should have taken a third. It also treats Milk’s love life as a matter of fact rather than an emotional reality. Consequently, when Milk's lovers depart, it doesn’t move as it should.
The film would like to portray his 1978 shooting death from the gun of fellow city supervisor Dan White as a martyr’s death. But the film sticks to the facts. Whatever White’s prejudices, it was more a case of White going postal than an assassination, the final product of political backstabbing. Perhaps that's a matter of debate. No matter. Josh Brolin’s tightly wound performance is wonderful, a marvel in a film with plenty of them.