At the start of Gus Van Sant's newest contribution to the mission of raising awareness around the position of homosexuality in the western world, you might feel a little uncomfortable at the sight of Sean Penn and James Franco making out - and enjoying it. Penn would not have been my first choice of playing a homosexual, but I soon realized that it probably was my memory of All the King's Men which had affected my faith in him. Ironically, there is actually a hint of resemblance between the two men he portrays in the two said movies, but to my delight, Penn shrugs off the bad memories of Willie Stark and propels Milk forward (along with the rest of great cast) as if there were no distinction between the veteran actor and the gay political icon.
Van Sant structures his film traditionally in the realm of the biopic genre, probably certain that the potency of the story and the character study will be enough. In all fairness, I agree that it is, and as a character portrait and a historical and political account, Milk works well. Harvey Milk's importance within the gay community in the United States is well-accounted for without turning into too much of a worship or becoming too internalized. Still, I can't refrain from feeling Van Sant should have done more with what he has at his disposal. Or less, to be more precise. The plot twists and turns constantly, sometimes without much significance or progress, and the characters are numerous and unevenly balanced. The bottleneck here is the editing, which should have been tighter in order to avoid a few idling periods.
To Van Sant's defence: the important narrative junctures, he does conduct remarkably well. The entire finale is very effective and emotional, and there is also an added element of suspense which the filmmakers cleverly create through letting us know the outcome all along and keeping us expecting the unexpected at any moment. Of course, those of you who know your history won't be affected by such film tricks, but that is exactly one of Milk's strengths; it works both as a suspense story and as an important historical account.
As previously mentioned, the acting is the best element in Milk. Sean Penn's performance is consummate, and he looks remarkably much like Mr. Harvey Milk. James Franco and Emile Hirsch are fine as Harvey's disciples, but I want to lavish extra praise on Josh Brolin. Not only is he able to attract sympathy to the bad guy through subtly portraying how the little deflections in his life contribute to pushing him over the edge, but he also is about to establish himself as one of the most diverse and probing character actors in Hollywood at the moment – cf. No Country For Old Men and W.