This film is a revelation of sorts. It’s been a while since director Gus Van Sant has shown us this kind of dazzling narrative, which includes stock footage which blends perfectly with the drama, and strong, clear writing. Ever since “Good Will Hunting” he’s been much more experimental, and the results have ranged from hauntingly brilliant (“Elephant”) to the downright uninteresting (“Last Days”). I’m glad he’s back. The other revelation is Sean Penn. We’re so used to seeing him brooding and angry, and here he embodies Harvey Milk with such joy and life, and it acts as a shockwave for the audience. The story is of Harvey Milk, narrated by himself, sitting at a kitchen table, recording his obituary, in some of the most poignant and simple powerful moments of the film. Harvey is gay. He wants equal rights. And he is willing to fight for them. The movie’s core is activism, and it was inspiring to see so many DOING instead of just talking. It was horrifying to see a “Christian” stand up and say that homosexuals should not be allowed to be teachers, or hold any position of prominence. If you are like me and you are a Christian who has long wondered just how the two sides came to hate each other so much, how the divide got so large, you may send a post-marked thank-you card to Anita Bryant.
Some of the supporting performances are splendid – James Franco in particular – and some are just awful – my man Emile Hirsch sadly belongs to this camp. The movie moves too quickly with its introductions of characters and Dan White isn’t really approached with anything remotely resembling subtlety, but the film is powerful because of Penn’s performance, Van Sant’s direction, and the writing of Dustin Lance Black. And it is possible to respect the film without agreeing with it wholeheartedly.