In 2008, eclectic filmmaker Gus Van Sant released two films: Paranoid Park, a challenging and formally adventurous indie, and the more classically structured but no less emotionally stirring biopic Milk. I’ve long been fascinated by Van Sant’s interesting and unpredictable career, and his film about San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay politician in the U.S., remains as powerful now as it did when I first viewed it almost 10 years ago. Sean Penn delivered a splendid performance as Milk, and everyone around him, including James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, and Diego Luna all offered fantastic supporting turns. Dustin Lance Black’s sharp screenplay was heavily researched, the dialogue intelligently written, and the film carried a sense of the tragic almost from the beginning. Shot by the incomparable cinematographer Harris Savides, the film had a vibrant and period-authentic aesthetic, which helped to solidify the time and place of the socially combustible narrative. Harvey Milk stood up for the entire gay community in the United States when nobody else dared to speak up for what they knew was right. This made him both loved and hated; wherever he went and whatever he did, his actions provoked passionate responses from everyone who crossed paths with him. The level of conviction that Penn brought to the role of Milk was remarkable, as he fully jettisoned any lingering elements from previous performances, totally embodying the man in both body and spirit. Here was a man who decided that enough was enough – it was time to set things right for himself and everyone like him. Penn breezed through the film with likable ease, and because death hangs over the proceedings so ominously, there was genuine sadness when he met his ultimate fate.
The other actors were all up to the task as well. Franco, playing Milk’s lover and first campaign strategist Scott Smith, gave one of the best performances of his career; combined with his hilarious turn in Pineapple Express, 2008 was a banner year for Franco. Penn and Franco, from the first scene, generated real on-screen chemistry, making their relationship all the more special and affecting. Brolin was absolutely gripping as the confused and desperate Dan White, a man who may or may not have been gay himself, giving a chilling performance as a person unable to understand the potential differences in other people; it’s a role that could have been oppressively one-note, but Brolin brought layers of emotion and mental complexity to the role. Hirsch registered strongly as Cleve Jones, one of Milk’s political strategists, and Luna, playing Milk’s emotionally troubled boyfriend Jack Lira, brought skittish, nervous energy to every scene he appeared in; you never quite know what will happen when he appears on screen. Van Sant has led an extremely idiosyncratic career as a filmmaker, and after embarking on some seriously avant-garde works (Elephant, Gerry, Last Days, and the previously mentioned Paranoid Park unofficially form a rather brilliant quartet of minimalistic storytelling), it appeared as if he wanted to prove that he could still deliver a more traditional and commercially friendly piece of filmmaking, and that he did with this engaging, wholly engrossing time capsule. And in working with Savides for the fifth time on Milk, Van Sant seamlessly blended archival footage with vivid re-creations of San Francisco in the late 1970’s; the atmosphere that this film possesses feels tangible. It’s sort of like a visually thematic cousin to the work that Savides did on David Fincher’s masterful serial killer/journalism thriller Zodiac. Danny Elfman’s score was never intrusive yet offered wonderful moments of musical inspiration while Elliot Graham’s fluid editing kept the two-hour run time moving along at a swift but unhurried pace. As far as biopics go, this one is at the top of the pile.