Sean Penn is just amazing in “Milk,” playing Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to public office. What’s most incredible about his Oscar-winning performance is that it’s so different from anything he’s ever done before. Harvey Milk could fire up crowds in his call for gay rights, but he was not an angry man trying to buck the system. He was cunning and charismatic and delighted in co-opting the political machine, so that’s how Penn plays him: a subtle charmer.
Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black do a great job of showing Harvey’s political ascent – the scenes of Milk and his partner Scott (James Franco) building a political movement out of their Castro Street camera shop breathe with an organic authenticity, helped by an impressive array of supporting actors. The film is less successful at portraying Milk’s personal life; his relationship with a flighty Latino boyfriend is so underwritten as to become comical.
There’s a decent array of extra features on the DVD, but it’s notable for the total absence of participation by Van Sant and Penn. Although both are glimpsed in the bonus material, they never speak directly about making this movie, and there’s no commentary track. Three brief deleted scenes add little, though one where Milk dresses up as a clown for a publicity stunt is visually arresting.
Of the three featurettes, the best is “Remembering Harvey,” a 13-minute documentary in which many of Milk’s real-life allies depicted in the movie, including Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg, reminisce about the man and his legacy. Carol Ruth Silver, who co-sponsored Milk’s anti-discrimination legislation, starkly admits his death helped the gay rights movement: “It’s a sad thing to say, but martyrdom works.”
A 14-minute doc, “Hollywood Comes to San Francisco,” consists of the usual blather and self-hype from the actors and filmmakers; Josh Brolin lets us know that he think Milk’s sacrifices were akin to those of “Jesus, and Gandhi.” Well.