I cannot seem to make up my mind as to who my favourite US screen actor is (not best, that’s Jack Nicholson, but favourite). There was a time when I thought it could only apply to a character actor but a few of the mainstream players have taken such varied and risky roles in recent times to make this qualification appear unnecessary.
Still, the opinion vacillates wildly, most often between Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. Penn’s turn in Mystic River (2003) was so wonderful that it turned me into a fan when before I considered him a leading man who took edgy roles in movies I may not particularly have enjoyed. On the other hand, Depp – at least before becoming Cap’n Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – seemed to revel in taking risks that had nothing to do with winning adulation and earning easy money.
After viewing Milk (2008), the story of California’s first openly gay political representative, the pendulum has swung back in the Penn direction.
Harvey Milk (Penn) led a movement. Just as his character says in the movie that the blacks got organised and that’s how the civil rights movement grew, he rallies the gay community in Castro, San Francisco. He does this first by getting his community to express their purchasing power by only shopping where their minority is accepted and later by mounting a political challenge against discrimination, which would have their number ousted from government and teaching jobs.
However, what Harvey was unable to say is that his influence in the times was similar if not as globally known as Dr Martin Luther King’s was to civil rights. Harvey’s stage is San Francisco while Dr King’s was the nation. Sadly, the outcomes were the same.
Just as their fight appeared to be won, a lone assassin took care of their future. While the motivation of Dr King’s killer, James Earl Ray, has never been fully understood – and there are conspiracy theorists who contend he didn’t act alone – the identity of Milk’s killer was obvious. However, the punishment he received earned the most notoriety, despite cold-bloodedly shooting San Francisco’s mayor George Moscone and Milk in the same morning.
Milk examines the rise of the film’s namesake from 40-year-old New York insurance salesman to San Francisco supervisor (elected councillor), his relationships, his weaknesses, his political strength and media-savvy and, perhaps most importantly, his influence on an entire minority group.
To explain much more would be to give away the story and its ending because Harvey Milk’s tale is not well known in Australia. This is good cinema with an outstanding performance from a lead actor of whom we’ve come to expect nothing less.