There are (a few) more offbeat directors working today than Gus Van Sant—he whose career is grounded in brash and unflinching indies like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho—but none whose muse is so endearingly scattered, whose oeuvre is so audaciously far-flung. And, some would say, uneven: The succinct character study of the aforementioned films was followed by the sprawling aimlessness of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues; and his oddball tendencies were belied by a mid-'90s delving into multiplex-friendly heartstring tuggers with the (admittedly well-wrought) Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, which bookended a clunky big-budget remake of Hitchcock's Psycho.
Now, after another string of low-rent indies of widely varying quality, the director brings us Milk, a biopic about the late San Francisco gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, which feels like it might be Van Sant's Great Work in that it is marked by all of the best elements of his previous films, with none of the excesses or tripe. It is complex, yet still tractable, accessible; morally complicated, but still appropriately seeded with moments of we-will-overcome uplift. And it is so full of spot-on performances that Oscar will likely omit a worthy cast member or two from its list of acting nominations, lest it seem partisan.
Leading the charge is Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Penn is arguably the greatest actor of his generation, if for no other reason than because, after nearly three decades of startlingly diverse character roles—taciturn tough guys, weasely sycophants, nihilistic ne'er-do-wells, and more—he is still capable of surprising us. Harvey is like no Penn we've seen before—openly and decidedly gay, at once warm, gregarious, naïve, ambitious, cunning, sweet, charismatic, and possessed of hidden reserves of strength that come to the fore whenever the chips are down and the riot cops are in full battle gear and the howling mob is just shy of ripping the doors off City Hall. There is perhaps no better testament to Penn's performance than a photo of the real Harvey Milk, shown during the closing credits, in which we can see the same weathered affect in the very lines of his smile.
Penn is surrounded by a talented bevy of supporting players, veterans and new faces alike, and there's not a bad showing to be found among the lot of them. James Franco slides effortlessly into the role of Scott Smith, Harvey's longtime partner—genial, appealingly understated, his classically roguish good looks tweaked just so by a bad '70s curly-do. Emile Hirsch is both earnest and jaded—believably so—as young hustler-turned-activist Cleve Jones. And Diego Luna manages to stir both revulsion and sympathy as Jack Lira, the unbalanced lover who threatens to derail Harvey's political career.
But most worthy of singling out, after Penn, is Josh Brolin in the seemingly thankless role of Dan White, Harvey's political enemy on the board of supervisors. It would be easy, and perhaps altogether reasonable, to demonize White, an archetypical stuffy suburbanite and ex-cop who reflexively scoffs at the Philistine presence of Harvey and his constituency. But Brolin—who never resorts to chewing scenery, but accomplishes so much more with his harried eyes and bewildered mien—and his director lend White unexpected dimensions. He is not so much inherently bigoted as he is confused and ambivalent, disillusioned, and plagued by malignant bouts of self-centered fear—fear of suburbia's merciless peer pressures, of financial insecurity, perhaps even of his own sexual identity. In the end, Brolin and Van Sant don't offer any excuses for White's actions, but they certainly go a long way toward helping the rest of us make sense of it all.
Milk covers plenty of ground over the course of its 128 minutes—nearly a decade in time, five elections, two of Harvey's love interests, and a handful of hot-button gay issues of the day, including California's Proposition 6 initiative to ban gays and lesbians from working in public schools. Yet it never feels forced or overburdened. Given the scope of Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's ambitions, it is remarkably coherent and breezily paced. It's even suspenseful, in stretches, such as the fraught moments before Harvey must step up to a podium in front of a crowd of thousands, minutes after receiving an unsigned death threat promising him a bullet through the heart the instant he takes the stage.
Reviewing Milk is almost an exercise in tedium, in that the film is, in the main, just as well-conceived and rendered as all the pre-Oscar hype would have you believe, while its message of hope, humanity and courage is beyond reproach. And where is the drama in that? Instead, let us hear what Gus Van Sant might be up to next. Now there's fodder for fascinating discussion.