Very late in Gus Van Sant’s biopic of San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk, a gay activist murdered by a disturbed fellow politician, there’s a moment where Sean Penn’s performance weirdly intersects with the one he gave in the misfire remake of All the King’s Men — Harvey, growing more confident of his power base, begins to make demands and give orders to his ally Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), and is told that he is sounding like (19th Century poltical fixer) Boss Tweed. As Willie Stark, the Huey Long-inspired protagonist of Robert Penn Warren’s novel, dies, cut down by an assassin, he muses ‘it could have been the whole world Willie Stark’. As Milk dies, shot by uncomfortable and perhaps repressed gay conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin), he looks at a poster for 2008 cinema’s favourite opera excerpt (Tosca) and we wonder whether he has a sense that in dying he gets off easy because he doesn’t have to become the power-wielding monster he might otherwise turn into. It’s the single dark note Penn brings to an otherwise hagiographic tale – the fact that Harvey has a boyfriend (Diego Luna) who commits suicide doesn’t reflect badly on the hero since Luna is stuck with the ‘nagging wife’ role usually lumbered on some poor actress in great man biopics, whining about how hubby isn’t home for dinner because he’s too busy digging the Suez canal, inventing the telephone or exploding the assassination cover-up.
Van Sant has been off the mainstream beat for a while, with hit-or-miss experiments like Psycho, Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, but here gets back into a more or less conventional groove and an Oscar-friendly format combining dramatic life story with sub-culture history lesson in one entertaining, well-acted package. The basic facts (and many vivid characters) were all in the memorable documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, but this tries to get under the skins of the principles. Penn is remarkable, doing his best to underplay the role of a man who lived in public as the epitome of flamboyant gayness (in contrast with more SF conservative gay power-brokers he rubbed the wrong way) but Brolin, continuing an amazing winning streak, is as good with fewer scenes as a man who cracks because he can’t go along with the changes Milk embraces and (in this reading of the story) might have been redeemable if Harvey were a little more thoughtful in dealings with him. Van Sant seems to relish wicked casting associations – Brolin’s White has to echo his George W. Bush, and current teen girl-appeal heart-throbs James Franco (Goblin Junior) and Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer) get to ‘play gay’, though Alison Pill is on her own (and does well) as the only major female character, Harvey’s ‘tough dyke’ backroom fixer.
It works hard to get the muslin blouses, posters and mix drinks right, but doesn’t take the easy route of drowning in period music. It’s Van Sant on good behaviour, indulging in a little Hollywood slickness (note the way Harvey learns from the opponent who first beats him in an election that he has to offer hope rather than anger to prosper in politics) and Gay History 101 material (there’s so much archive footage of Anita Bryant she’s almost a co-star) to reach an audience who wouldn’t sit still for his personal, experimental projects — though, like Elephant and Last Days, this is a based-on-fact story which ends with gunshot deaths.