Sean Penn is known for his staggering acting range, able to portray a wide variety of characters with ease, skill and heart. From the quintessential surfer-stoner dude Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, to racist murderer Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking, to mentally handicapped father Sam Dawson in I Am Sam, Penn can take on just about any persona. His latest role as the lead in Gus Van Sant’s Milk is no doubt as powerful as all his past work.
Milk is a biopic on Harvey Milk, the very first openly homosexual man to be elected for public office in the United States, joining the San Francisco Board of Supervisors back in 1978. He was assassinated a scant 10 months since taking up office by Dan White, a fellow board member who also assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone just moments before.
Milk’s legacy is one that remains very relevant up to this day, echoing this year’s historical and political “first” with Barack Obama’s presidential win, as well as the current controversy behind the recent passage of Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay marriage act. Considering the weight the Harvey Milk role should bear on its actor, it seems that much was being asked of Penn. Not surprisingly, though, the man delivered spectacularly.
Taking on a surprisingly high-pitched, Long Island accent, Penn lives and breathes the Harvey Milk character. His other mannerisms such as his posture and facial expressions not only bring life to the character, but also keep from being an insulting or stereotypical portrayal of homosexual men.
Playing alongside Penn are a few equally talented actors from the newer generation. James Franco and Diego Luna play the men in Milk’s life with the same knack as Penn. Director Van Sant, of course, also shines through this masterpiece. From indie flicks like My Own Private Idaho to more mainstream fare like Good Will Hunting, Van Sant himself has a knack for taking on powerful topics and portraying them with skill and sensitivity. He avoids making Milk out to be some Great Man or untouchable, god-like hero but, rather, focuses more on the man and the mission he upheld.