There is no clever title that can say more about this movie than the one chosen. It's simply a film about a man who wanted to change his world, and in the process changed perceptions, communities, and lives far beyond his own. This bio-film does everything that it's supposed to do, without any overt or manipulating emotions, just a truthful story about someone who was brave enough to face his own truths.
This is the story of Harvey Milk whose election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made him the first openly-gay man elected to office in California. One of the fist lines we hear from Milk (an Oscar-worthy Sean Penn) establishes exactly why the film begins with Milk already in his 40s, unlike most bios which begin, well at the very beginning. We're told that Harvey Milk is turning forty and he feels that he's done nothing, up to this point that he's proud of. Milk is promptly told that it might be time to find a new scene, find some new friends, and that's exactly what he does. The story that follows is the story of a life cut short, but nonetheless, a life fully lived.
Throughout the film we're introduced to the people that changed Harvey Milk, the ones that pushed Harvey Milk, the ones that hated Harvey Milk and the ones that helped Harvey Milk, and the ones that loved Harvey Milk. The audience is introduced to all of those people and the supporting cast in these roles shine almost as much as Penn. James Franco as Harvey's long-time partner Scott is beautifully subtle, allowing Penn's Milk to shine all the more, although I do think that an Oscar nomination for Franco is something of a stretch. The standout for me is Emile Hirsch's Cleve Jones, who's responsible for infusing the film with a little bit of humor, a little bit of angst, and a lot of realism.
The direction from Gus Van Sant, who's made questionable choices in the past, is back in top form here, never pushing anything too much, just allowing the events to unfold without anything flashy. He infuses real-life footage, making this feel more like a documentary, a smart choice when it comes to biographies. It's a choice that forces the public to remember that this is something that really happened, even if it wasn't part of their generation. Even more beautifully used in this film, as a reminder of the dangers that occur when prejudice and fear rule the world, a world that isn't far removed from today's.
While the outcome may not indicate a lot of hope for a world like that, I'd like to believe that the ultimate message, one that's full of hope for the people that want to fight for what's fair and what's right, is what people will take away. In a holiday season with so few great movies, so far, this is certainly a standout. The holidays might bring their own sense of hope, but I would like to believe that witnessing the strength and resolve of a life like that of Harvey Milk's is enough to, in Milk's own words, "Give 'em Hope" and inspiration throughout the year.
Overall: 4.5 out of 5.0