Sean Penn is an amazing actor, there’s no doubt about that. He is a chameleon and can do practically any role and I am sure he will be awarded a lifetime achievement award before his career is over, unless he already has one, I don’t know. By being such a superb actor everyone expects him to perform that way and so it’s often easy to miss just how outstanding it is. I think this is the case with Milk. Penn has been recognized, being nominated for the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and the Academy Awards, losing the Globe to Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler but taking the SAG. The big question is will he win the Oscar? I think so, but Mickey Rourke will be his biggest competitor.
The only downfall I see with Penn’s performance is that at the beginning of the film I was reminded of his performance in I Am Sam where he plays a mentally challenged father trying to keep custody of his daughter. This is obviously a VERY different roll from that of Harvey Milk but there were some uncanny similarities. He still deserves the Oscar nod and probably the win, but it reminds me that while Penn is great, he’s not perfect.
The second best performance in Milk is that of Emile Hirsch who plays Cleve Jones, a member of Milk’s political team. You may remember Hirsch from Into the Wild and Speed Racer. He does a great job in this film and to be honest, I almost didn’t recognize him at first – thanks to hair and make-up. I was a little disappointed that he did not get an Oscar nomination (even though Robert Downey Jr. did for Tropic Thunder), but politics being what they are in the film industry I’ll have to let it go especially when I already have decided that Michael Shannon should win for his role in Revolutionary Road.
Overall Milk is a hard film for me to rate. I think it was well made and the emphasis was placed in the right areas. It’s a biopic about Harvey Milk and from what I’ve read it’s fairly accurate, so in that sense it’s a good movie. My only qualm about the storyline is in the following Milk builds throughout the film. I do not doubt that he was a good person in real life and maybe in real life there was more discussion, but in the movie they only allude to his faults and hypocrisies briefly before moving on.
When Milk demands that his following come out of the closet to everyone they know, his ex-boyfriend Scott Smith (played by James Franco) calls him out saying that he (Milk) was in the closet most of his life and shouldn’t expect people to do what he couldn’t. Their conversation is quickly ended when their new respective partners appear and are anxious to leave for the night, and that’s the end of it. It’s not mentioned again but it’s a question that the film needs to answer. There are a few other instances where the viewer gets a glimpse at the Harvey Milk behind the public figure but the door is shut so quickly that you have to wonder why?
This film could use a little more depth and allow us to see the true character of Harvey Milk. I will be the first to admit that I don’t know the history behind the movie well enough to state if it’s a true depiction or not, but in my humble opinion, it’s not true to life. Milk is portrayed too perfectly in this film and no human is that selfless and pristine. There has to be more underlying baggage that they didn’t show. While it may have been done intentionally to keep the focus on the grandeur of the legislature that Milk passed, it also detracts from the reality of this film. It sets Milk up as an idol instead of a man who had faults but still did great things – and that is something worth being proud of.