So let me start by saying I wasn’t familiar, in any great detail, with the story of Harvey Milk prior to the marketing for this movie. I certainly wasn’t as familiar with his story or persona as I was with, say, Ray Charles or Johnny Cash or even Howard Hughes. Now mind you, I wasn’t really familiar with any of them on any real level. I knew of them, but not much.
So there have been tons and tons of biopics lately of varying levels of success. I think the general feeling (maybe a result of the Oscar and the unfortunate passing of Ray Charles during the time) is that Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray [DVD] is the standard bearer. “Jamie Foxx BECAME Ray Charles” was the basic statement. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ray. It was a good enough movie, but just didn’t really catch me. But here’s the thing, if Jamie Foxx deserved the Oscar for Ray, then Joaquin Phoenix did just as admirable a job as Johnny Cash the following year in Walk the Line [DVD]. I thought his performance as Johnny Cash was just as deep as Jamie Foxx’s performance. So this is all a long way of saying, I don’t really know how performances of real people are quantified. That said, it’s easier for me to say “wow” to those performances than Sean Penn’s performance as Harvey Milk, if only, because I am familiar with the source people and thus can see the level of mimicry achieved.
This isn’t a knock on Penn’s performance. I think it speaks greatly of it, that I know it’s a true story and find it utterly believable, real, and totally commendable. However, I think the two standout performances in this movie were James Franco and Josh Brolin. Franco kind of plays the same sort of sad guy as he’s done for most of his career, but he does it so well. I thought Brolin played Dan White pitch perfect. The right amount of desperation, ambition, and all of that.
Such a tragic story. But well told in this movie. I don’t know if Sean Penn became Harvey Milk, but this performance is up there on that level for me. I thought some of the choices made by Gus Van Sant were a little boring and cliche, but for the most part, I thought he did a good job with this story.