I was apprehensive when I went to see the new Gus Van Sant movie, since Paranoid Park had left me quite a delible impression on me. But let there be no questions about it, Milk–an undiluted view of a man’s struggle against all odds and the riotous events which shaped his rise to success–is a triumph. This is a film which makes writing a review either too easy or too difficult–its faults are virtually non-existent.
How can it be, I ask, that such a screenplay, with its potential junctions into sentimentalism and knowing overtures has managed to swell so far above the clear-cut and the predictable? The credit goes in part to screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, an unknown scribe and sometimes director and producer who’s got our attention and should keep it awhile. It helps also that Sean Penn is in the movie–just a little. Has he ever truly disappointed? His turn as Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay person elected to public office in the U.S. is an exercise in visual optics.
You have to keep reminding yourself, at more or less regular intervals during the movie (I counted three times) that this is Sean Penn and not that much-beloved pillar of the San Francisco gay community, Harvey Milk. Early during the film I caught myself thinking that this man is doing a disservice to a great many aspiring actors. His message to them seems clear: Mr. Penn single-handedly makes Milk a wonder to behold and should discourage anyone else from acting, ever again.
Penn is at his best when portraying complex characters who are weak at the core and who suddenly find themselves thrown on a different course from the one they were undeniably bound to, a course in which great adversity and a bent for failure have to constantly be repressed. Gus Van Sant gives Penn ample room to ply his craft while at the same time allowing the story’s powerful historical precedence to resonate through Penn’s blend of manic and subdued energy. Run, don’t walk, to see Milk (also stars Emile Hirsch, James Falco, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna and Allison Pill).