Gay activist Harvey Milk left his high heels at home, or so he jokes to a room full of burly teamsters in “Milk.”
The phenomenal biopic set in the turbulent 1970s chronicles the last eight years of Harvey’s singular life and violent death.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (HBO’s “Big Love”) structures “Milk” as a series of flashbacks Harvey recalls, while recording his will and testament to play in case he’s killed.
After turning 40 “without one damn thing to be proud of” and spending decades hiding his relationships, Harvey rushes out of the closet and New York to find his purpose in San Francisco. There he makes a home with his younger lover and fathers an equal-rights crusade out of his Castro Street camera shop, which becomes a ’70s salon brimming with intellectuals and young activists. One of which is Cleve Jones, who goes on to conceive the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Charming yet relentless through three failed political campaigns, Harvey evolves from neighborhood leader to the first openly gay official elected to a major public office.
Josh Brolin’s tormented Dan White, one of Harvey’s colleagues, shoots two bullets into Harvey’s head after murdering San Francisco’s mayor and imprints the “Twinkie Defense” into history books.
A stellar Sean Penn, who disappears into his character, conveys how Harvey’s charm, cunning and passion won over lovers, the media, political partners and rioting mobs.
In one especially poignant scene, a disabled gay youth from the Midwest calls Harvey with suicidal thoughts, but Harvey’s interrupted before he can help.
Yet as compelling as Harvey’s professional life is, his personal life with Scott Smith brings more emotion to the screen. As Scott, James Franco depicts a touching, authentic intimacy with Penn.
The only flaw in an otherwise irreproachable film is Harvey’s partner who comes around once Scott admits he can’t bear the burdens of political life. The one-dimensional character, “the first lady” Jack Lira, played by Diego Luna, comes across as a hysterical, needy man-child more like a stalker than a lover.
“Milk” director Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”) will “make the 90 percent of the U.S. care about the other 10 percent,” as Harvey says in the film about asking supporters to reveal they are gay to persuade their heterosexual families and friends to help defeat a 1978 state referendum. The proposal threatened to ban gays from teaching in California public schools.
Between eloquent fictional scenes, Van Sant weaves necessary archival footage to show how brutal and ugly gay rights adversaries were.
“Milk” won’t convince the Dan Whites of the world to support gay marriage and fight for other gay rights. But it will introduce younger generations to a hero, and inspire them and middle-age men and women who think once they hit 40 the rest of their life story is already written.
Four and a half stars out of five
» Stars: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna and James Franco
» Director: Gus Van Sant
» Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence
» Running Time: 128 minutes
WATCH THE TRAILER