Sean Penn received his second Academy Award in 2009 for his portrayal here of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the USA.  Director Gus Van Sant, no stranger to making films about gay and other fringe cultural groups, turns the spotlight fully on his lead actor here for this, his first biopic.  In their first collaboration together, the director and actor are clearly both committed to elevating an iconic figure to a more recognisably heroic stature in the public eye.  Though the film also utilises the talents of Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco, the supporting cast never take centre stage.

For those unfamiliar to the man (as I was), the film tells the story of Harvey Milk (Penn), a New Yorker who migrated to San Francisco among a tide of homosexuals flooding to the city in the early 1970s with new-found love, Scott Smith (Franco).  Facing immediate discrimination from the police and business-owners, Milk strikes back by uniting the large numbers of gays in his immediate neighbourhood and directing them to shop only at gay-friendly establishments.  In doing so he finds himself as a voice for a minority whose rights are under threat both in the city and throughout the nation.  The film documents his increasing zeal and commitment to political action as he battles first to become City Supervisor for his district, and then to secure the rights of homosexuals in California.

As with most biopics the performance of the lead determines the success of the film.  In this respect “Milk” excels, Penn giving a wonderfully warm and emotive performance.  Fully deserving of the Best Actor award even considering his competition at the time from the likes of Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) and Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”), Penn embodies the role completely.  Rather than seeming like an amalgamation of affectations, every word and movement adheres to a single and confidant whole.  His effortless and never exaggerated display of joy and sorrow showed a depth of tender vulnerability that I had never seen in Penn before.  I watch this having recently been silently stunned by Penn’s directorial effort “Into the Wild” (a powerful biopic of Christopher McCandless).  It seems clear to me that from his performances both behind and in front of the camera, Sean Penn’s star continues to rise.

With the lead performance out of the way, it is time to look at the story itself, its direction and script.  I will restrain myself from ranting, but a particular bug-bear of mine is with the standard structure of the biopic, particularly of those given the most attention in the last 5-10 years.  While I understand that a biopic is supposed to tell the story of a person’s life, I am constantly dumbfounded by the insistence that most directors approaching a work of this kind seem to have that the person’s entire life must be shown.  Highly celebrated films like “Ray”, “Walk the Line” and “La Vie en Rose” all adhered strictly to this template and suffered for it.  Trying to cram a life of 60-70 years into 2 hours is absurd and will inevitably lead to the film skimming the surface of that life as if it were the opening paragraph to a Wikipedia article.  The supporting cast is lost in confusion and the pace of the film is buried in a predictable tale of rise and fall.  The alternative?  An in-depth exploration of the character during a key episode of their life.  Bennett Miller’s “Capote” is a wonderful example of how well this approach can work.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is no more or less impressive than those of Jamie Foxx, Joaquin Phoenix or Marion Cotillard in the three films I mentioned earlier, but we are left with a much richer feel for the man he portrays because the film centres on the few years of Truman Capote’s life that display and test his character the most.  In this respect as well, “Milk” also largely succeeds.  We don’t need to see the first 40 years of Harvey Milk’s life, because his actions and choices in the succeeding 10 years that the movie does show tells us all we need to know.  However, I do think that more could have been made of Milk’s private life in those 10 years.  While his political exploits are explored in some detail, his lovers are relegated to the background, and it is very rare for us to see an extended moment of dialogue between Milk and one of those close to him that reveals the inner workings of the man.  Therefore I would say that while the film certainly didn’t fail in its execution, it was a little too single-minded for my liking.

I found this film to be generally entertaining, and certainly feel that it was a story worth telling, celebrating a man deserving of recognition.  When we see Harvey (by no means a tough man) walk up the stairs to a stage in front of thousands immediately after being shown a note saying “The first bullet hits you when you reach the microphone”, we are given a telling reminder of how much courage it takes to stand up for an often despised minority in the way he did.  The fact that the man was still such a bright and caring man speaks volumes for his faith in humanity.  Sean Penn delivers a delightful performance, while Gus Van Sant is as confidant as ever behind the camera.  His eye for realism and penchant for exterior shots of ordinary American streets in full daylight really strip his scenes naked and removes the glamour that often infects portrayals of large American cities.  It is something that I contine to admire him for.  Overall, I certainly recommend this film – it is worth seeing simply to see Penn acting so finely.