In Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”, Sean Penn seems to have been possessed by the ghost of Harvey Milk. Early on I lost the sense of an actor playing an historical figure and just watched scenes from the life of that character. This is an amazing performance. An insightful friend pointed out that Penn seems like another person because he is being charming (Milk was famously charming). This is the first time Penn has given a charming performance since playing Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in 1982.
“Milk” is a good movie but it is impossible to say just how good at this time since it has political reverberations way beyond its worth as a work of art. This is the film biography of the first openly Gay politician in California. Harvey Milk’s central message was that the way to achieve Gay civil rights was by Gay people coming out so that straight people would see them not as “the other”, but as their child, their neighbor, their coworker, etc. He campaigned for various offices for years before finally becoming a San Francisco Supervisor. He was assassinated less then a year later along with Mayor George Moscone.
His message has particular resonance now since the voters of California recently passed a ballot initiative, Prop 8, which robs Gay people of the right to marry, a civil right only recently given them by the State Supreme Court. We can assume that the yes votes for the initiative were from people who continue to see Gay people as “the other”.
I believe that Prop 8 will be overturned either in the courts or in the voting booth and I suspect that 10 years from now, “Milk” will be seen as a skillfully done biography of a fascinating historical figure, in a very interesting time and place, but I don’t think it will be seen as a great film.