I came home from watching Gus Van Sant’s Milk and found this review in Rolling Stone that pretty much expresses everything I feel about the film:
Maybe you don’t know a damn thing about gay activist Harvey Milk. Maybe you ought to know that President-elect Barack Obama isn’t the only community organizer who went on to make a difference. Maybe thoughtful filmmaking, no matter how incendiary and intimate, isn’t worth squat at an infantilized multiplex. Stop me now. There’s really no maybe about Milk, directed with a poet’s eye by Gus Van Sant from a richly detailed script by Big Love writer Dustin Lance Black. It’s a total triumph, brimming with humor, heart, sexual heat, political provocation and a crying need to stir things up, just like Harvey did. If there’s a better movie around this year, with more bristling purpose, I sure as hell haven’t seen it.
That Harvey’s questing spirit not only lives but soars in this movie is a gift from Sean Penn, who plays him for real instead of for show. Penn is a lion of an actor, but the tenderness he radiates here is revelatory. Smoldering intensity wasn’t Harvey’s thing. A closeted Wall Street investment banker who came out politically about the same time he did sexually, Harvey disarmed people with his ready charm, his bracing intelligence and his knack for helping the disenfranchised fight back. Penn uses makeup to lengthen his nose and look more like Harvey. He adopts a New York accent to get Harvey’s inflections. But the physical transformation is nothing compared to the way Penn gets at the core of the man, finding the source of his joy and pain. He disappears into Harvey with the artistry of an acting virtuoso. There’s one word for Penn’s performance: phenomenal.
If you want to hate on this movie, bring it on. To those who say it’s ancient history since Harvey’s battle is no longer an issue, I say wake up and smell the hate crimes, and the bill banning gay marriage that passed on Election Day. To those who say its focus limits its audience, I say Harvey’s focus was human rights and therefore limitless. San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be voted into office in America, was shot dead in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, in City Hall. Dan White, a troubled politico who had served with Harvey on the city’s board of supervisors, pumped five bullets into Harvey. The crusader for gay rights in San Francisco, and the nation, was 48.
Yes, that says it: a tremendous performance by Sean Penn, a powerful movie about the central importance of human rights, and the uncanny parallels with Barack Obama’s political philosophy of reminding citizens of the import of the Declaration of Independence and his campaign strategy of reaching out across societal divides. A generation ahead of Barack Obama’s victory, Harvey Milk had his own slogan: “You’ve got to give them hope.”