Story last updated at 2/11/2009 - 11:39 am
Gus Van Sant's "Milk" is a lively biopic of slain gay politician Harvey Milk, one that mostly avoids the "this happened, then that happened" routineness of many of its ilk.
Much of that credit has to go to Van Sant's collaboration with star Sean Penn, who seems much more alive here than in his recent run of tormented anti-heroes, as gruelingly believable as they were. As Milk, Penn is funny, flirty and flawed, and there's a spark to his character that makes him just pop from the screen -- he's able to conjure up a whole inner life for his character. He comes alive.
Milk was shot 30 years ago by politician Dan White, who had served with him as a city supervisor in San Francisco. White pulled a gun on Milk after shooting Mayor George Moscone, an event that Van Sant gets to in the film's opening minutes before circling back to it, inevitably.
The film nimbly shows Milk's unlikely journey from 40-year-old closeted New Yorker to the country's first openly gay politician, one who greeted his supporters, with a bullhorn, as "my fellow degenerates."
It details his efforts to work against anti-gay activist Anita Bryant (in archival footage) and to work with and against White, whom he teased on TV: "Dan and I are in bed together, politically speaking."
White was old-school San Francisco, working class and conservative, uneasy with the changes in the city, and Josh Brolin plays him with humanity and subtlety. To be sure, you never quite understand why he would go to such desperate steps. His lawyers, as you might recall, argued that it was because of eating Twinkies.
Watch also for James Franco as Milk's longtime boyfriend and Emile Hirsch as a former street hustler who became a guardian of his legacy. Both have the curly perms of the time.
Milk doesn't avoid quite all the trappings of the biopic. Milk may indeed have said, "40 years old, and I haven't done a thing I'm proud of," and "I'll never make it to 50," but it still feels awfully literal when seen here.
However, the movie's framing device - Milk sitting at a kitchen table, recording his thoughts for posterity in the event of his assassination - is based on reality. It's chillingly effective.
"Milk" is opening wider this week about two months after it opened in parts of the country. Last week, of course, it got eight Oscar nominations, including ones for Penn, Brolin, Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and for Best Picture overall.