This was always going to be good – it’s got Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking) in it and director Van Sant is a master of both arty indies (like Paranoid Park) and more commercial fayre (Good Will Hunting). But it’s better than good – it’s awesome.
It’s not easy to tell a story with a known ending (the film starts with Harvey Milk’s death, then skips back) and keep people riveted, but through impeccable characterization and powerhouse acting you feel so involved with these people that by the end you’re almost in denial about how it will turn out. All of this plays out with beautiful period-evocative production and cinematography too (by Harris Savides, who was DoP on David Fincher’s Zodiac).
While Penn’s performance is the truly immaculate centrepiece, the supporting cast are no passengers – Hirsch, Luna and Franco are fully believable as Milk’s variously camp gang. Meanwhile, Josh Brolin (as Milk’s rival Dan White) seethingly snowballs from diplomatic geniality to murderous ire as his power is undermined. At the tragic climax he’s quietly terrifying – it’s a real edge-of-your-seat moment to cap off a film filled with passion, politics, humour and heartbreak.
Not just a meticulously crafted tale, Milk is a reminder of how involving – and how important – cinema can be, a fictionalised biopic that feels documentary accurate. Give these people some Oscars.