Film certainly has a soft spot for lovable losers. How else can you explain the success of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, a young Mickey Rooney, the Little Rascals or the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino from their 1970s heydays? (Come on, admit that these brilliant actors got under our collective skin thanks to their hangdog expressions.)
The top-shelf attractions might have been the solid, handsome men of action, but everyone ends up rooting for the little guy against the pretty people because we all feel, in our heart of hearts, that we’re able to see more than a shade of ourselves trying to fight the rising tide.
It seems director Gus Van Sant stands more than foursquare with the strays of the world. His career highlights include Drugstore Cowboy (Matt Dillon leading a team of junkie waifs), My Own Private Idaho (with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as near Shakespearean losers), Good Will Hunting (Matt Damon as a boy genius under the watchful eye of wounded psychologist Robin Williams) and its virtual clone Finding Forrester (sensitive ghetto scribe and his reclusive author-mentor)
Van Sant hits his stride with the indie loser trifecta of Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, where futility sets the standard. So it should come as no surprise that the tragic story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), San Francisco’s (and the nation’s) first openly gay public official voted into office, might stir a sense of kinship in him. [Read Jason Gargano's interview with Gus Van Sant and cast members of Milk here. Hear interviews with James Franco and others and see production photos here.]
Milk loves the strays, too. Right from the start, the closeted Great American Insurance employee, on the eve of his 40th birthday, approaches charming young looker Scott Smith (James Franco) in the New York subways and starts instructing him in the best ways to protect himself against the dangers of an out-sized life in the mean streets. But it is Scott who schools Milk, setting him on a journey of openness that leads to San Francisco and the Castro. And it’s here where Milk creates a home for his gay strays — one in which public displays become the root of public service.
Milk brings Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) into the growing fold of young activists intent on carrying their Milkman into the office of city supervisor. Once inside the halls of power, Milk picks up the final stray who will be his undoing in the form of fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).
Brolin shines in his few scenes, hinting at the turmoil deep inside White as Milk extends as much support as he can — which, in the end, is enough rope to hang them both.
It goes without saying, though, that the brunt of the work falls on the shoulders of Penn, who has to display an endless reservoir of caring in intimate scenes.
Milk might have been the Mayor of Castro Street, but in Milk Penn serves as the perfect stand-in for Van Sant and proves, once again, to be the man to make golden winners of us all. Grade: A-