Rating: R for language, sexuality and mature themes
Run Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Performances are king in this poignant homage to late great San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Sean Penn has a field day portraying the first openly gay man elected to office in the U.S. As a 40-year old Brooklyn insurance salesman with nothing to show for himself Harvey decides on a fresh start and heads west to check out San Francisco’s burgeoning gay scene.
Along for the ride is newly minted lover Scott Smith (Palo Alto native James Franco) who will be Harvey’s rock in both good times and bad.
Harvey and Scott open a fledgling photo shop in the Castro district (ostensibly so Harvey can sit in the window and watch the cute boys walk by), much to the dismay of the local business owners who don’t want “their kind” tarnishing their solid working-class neighborhood.
Castro Camera is a gradual success, evolving into an activist hangout as Harvey and friends sense an increasing need to formally organize for gay rights. From his status as the unofficial “Mayor of Castro Street” Harvey moves on to politics of a more formal sort, running for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors not as a candidate but as part of a bigger movement. Courtesy of director Gus Van Sant’s skillful technique a revolution unfolds.
After several misfires Harvey is elected Supervisor and makes a name for himself in the City by the Bay, chumming around with liberal mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) and trying to making nice with conservative District Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).
The rest is history – a painful chapter in American politics. For those of a certain age it’s tough to erase the memories of those dismal days; for the rest far be it from me to play spoiler.
Not surprisingly Penn is a marvelous Milk; inheriting the brash, engaging spirit of a classic nurturer who broke down barriers with his campy wit and warmth. Franco is excellent as the unruffled lover who tires of taking a backseat and Diego Luna weirdly tempestuous as an emotionally loose cannon who takes over where Scott leaves off. Brolin – hello phenomenal year! – pulls out a rock-solid White whose clean-cut appeal masks mountains of turmoil.
Visuals are lush and loaded with kodachrome nostalgia and vintage 70s footage that thrills when the concept gets repetitive. The Danny Elfman score is a soothing salve for open wounds. Van Sant sidesteps his fringe beat to craft a more refined affair with hope as its central and wholly contemporary theme. A slice of history well worth revisiting.