Milk succeeds as a political biopic because it is first and foremost a political biopic, declining to follow Harvey Milk from the cradle to the grave (it does follow him to the grave, obviously - it would be difficult not to seeing as his assassination occurred right after his greatest political victory) but instead keeping the focus squarely on his runs for office and his fight against California's eerily familiar Proposition 6. I've seen one too many biopics that hamfistedly psychoanalyze and exhaustingly depict the lead character's childhood and adolescent woes, but Milk instead uses one man's journey to show that social change via politics is, however rare and unlikely, possible.
Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk with his usual tightly controlled line readings that occasionally flirt with overacting and risk making him seem like some kind of uncanny valley acting automaton, and yes, his highly affected gay lisp often sounds cringe-inducingly close to his I Am Sam retard lisp, but it's mostly in his big speech scenes; in one-on-one dialogue he mellows out and does a good job, shaping a clear and distinct character. None of the other characters particularly stand out, which is fair seeing as the film is Milk's story, with Josh Brolin's portrayal of political colleague-turned-assassin Dan White being the most interesting and Diego Luna as Milk's whiny, histrionic boyfriend being the film's low point without question.
But for however lukewarm I may feel about certain characters and performances, where Milk thrives is in its portrayal of San Francisco on the edge of a minor social revolution and showing the growth of a grassroots political network; the often unpleasant grittiness of putting together a campaign, consolidating political power in a neighborhood, and the struggle against vile social conservatism. Milk's campaigns are engaging but the fight against Proposition 6 that takes up the back half of the film is some of the best political cinema I've seen in years (okay, if you ignore Diego Luna, anyway), even giving us a contemptible real-life villain in the subhuman shitstain Anita Bryant, seen solely via real archived footage much as Joe McCarthy was in Good Night, and Good Luck.
There's a part of me that wants to dislike Milk on the basis of it being another Sean Penn prestige picture - I admit an inherent bias against anything that smells like Oscar bait, just as surely as most film critics have an inherent bias against action movies - but although the movie may be Oscar-friendly it's impossible to deny for a moment that in this post-Proposition 8 world it's depressingly, achingly relevant. As relevant as ever, if not more so, by showing us how little public views on something as innocuous as homosexuality have changed in thirty years. We hardly need reminding in the age of President Obama that grassroots political activism can have great impact, but Milk does serve as a well-made cinematic reminder that when social prejudice comes along, no one has to roll over and take it.
3 Stars out of 5