Those familiar with Gus Van Sant’s work will know of his previous Cannes Film Festival hits Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007). Both films deal with alienation and a sense of hopelessness, emotions that contrast with those conjured while watching his latest award-winning biopic.
The film takes place in San Francisco in the late 1970s and focuses on one of the most pivotal aspects of the American counter-culture, the gay rights movement. Sean Penn portrays Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual man ever elected into US public office, who along with lover/partner Scott Smith (Franco) leads a pack of charming gay activists against homophobic ex-gospel singer Anita Bryant. Caught in between is portly Dan White (Brolin), a family man struggling with his sexuality and San Francisco Supervisor (or member of the legislature) who turns homicidal. Unlike the director’s two aforementioned experimental films, in which narrative doesn’t necessarily follow a linear sequence, Milk is told chronologically through the acting, archive footage and vintage photographs.
Van Sant offers the audience a look at the delicate relationships Milk formed during brief time as City District Supervisor, from his alliance with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (played by Victor Garber of TV’s Alias) to his tenuous interdependency with seemingly straight assassin White. However, other than Milk, little background is given to the rest of the merry ensemble. And thus, we were unfazed when drama queen Jack Lira (Diego Luna) kills himself, uninspired by lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill) and felt no sympathy when White was killing time on his living-room sofa in his underwear.
Despite the film’s less-than-rounded characters, we were kept entertained with cinematographer Harris Savides’s (Zodiac) ability to capture the vibe of the ’70s, Sean Penn’s hammy swagger and Emile Hirsch’s engaging performance as Milk’s young-and-p*ssed-off protégé.