Director : Gus Van Sant
Screenplay : Dustin Lance Black
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), Josh Brolin (Dan White), Diego Luna (Jack Lira), James Franco (Scott Smith), Alison Pill (Anne Kronenberg), Victor Garber (Mayor George Moscone), Denis O’Hare (State Senator John Briggs), Joseph Cross (Dick Pabich), Stephen Spinella (Rick Stokes), Lucas Grabeel (Danny Nicoletta)
In telling the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to major public office when he became a San Francisco city supervisor in 1977, director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black have chosen to focus not on the entirety of Milk’s life, but rather on an eight-year period that begins with his political awakening and ends with his tragic assassination. Early in the film, just seconds after Milk has turned 40, he says that he hasn’t done anything yet that he’s proud of. At the end of the film Van Sant replays that scene, which hammers home its poignancy and reasserts that Milk’s life didn’t begin until that moment.
That moment begins when Milk (Sean Penn) meets Scott Smith (James Franco), a man 20 years his junior, in a subway station in New York City, where Milk is a closeted Wall Street researcher. After becoming lovers, they move together to San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, which was turning into a mecca for homosexuals and hippies in the late 1960s. Milk grows out his hair and beard and embraces the counterculture life, which eventually leads him into political activism, including several failed runs for city office. But Milk persists, eventually shedding his counterculture image and embracing short hair and suits as a way of blending in physically, if never ideologically, with the political elite. He gathers around him a group of activists who share his enthusiasm, or grow to share it, as in the case of Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), a cynical young man who was selling his body on street corners when Milk first met him and later became one of his most ardent supporters. Milk is also aided in his political endeavors by San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), who was sympathetic to gay activists.
Lurking throughout the film is Dan White (Josh Brolin), a button-down fellow city supervisor whose alternations between furrowed brow and transparently fake smile clearly mark him as trouble. As Penn fully embodies Milk’s vivacity and political acumen, so does Brolin nail White’s coiled anger and instability, which seems constantly on the verge of exploding. We never see White except in his interactions with Milk, which runs the risk of marginalizing the psychological turmoil of the film’s villain. For those who know the entire story of their relationship, Brolin’s performance is chilling in what it foreshadows; for those who don’t, it serves as its own explanation for what eventually happens.
Although he disappears completely into Milk’s mannerisms and vocal cadence, Sean Penn transcends simple mimicry with a genuine sense of heart and soul. You can’t help but like Milk as a character and admire his enthusiasm and tenacity, even when he is faced with steep odds and an almost overwhelming opposition to everything he stands for. The latter half of the film focuses specifically on Milk’s activism in championing civil rights for homosexuals and defeating Proposition 6, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. Even though the earlier stages of his life when he was a closeted conservative are not explicitly depicted, they are referenced by other characters, which gives context to his activism and what a radical turn it represented for a man who had yet to do anything he was proud of.
The film, in fact, is at its best when detailing Milk’s grassroots activism, which started out of both conviction and frustration with the treatment of gays (one of the formative moments is when Milk’s new camera store is denied inclusion in the Castro Business Association) and grew into a mantra that caused thousands of California gays to come out of the closet and essentially give a human face to homosexuality, hence discrediting the malicious accusations of people like California State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare), who put Proposition 6 on the ballot. Yet, the film’s political elements work only because Milk is humanized in a way that transcends his undeniably effective political theater.
Van Sant has veered quite extravagantly between eclectic, experimental cinema and more mainstream fare (witness the year 2000 which gave us the minimalist experiment Gerry and the crowd-pleasing Finding Forrester), and Milk is a film that, despite its progressive subject matter, falls squarely in the latter category. This is, of course, perfectly understandable, given that the film’s form is much like Harvey Milk’s conservative haircut and suits: an external vehicle that is acceptable to the mainstream and therefore increases his chances of drawing in those who would normally avoid a movie about a gay rights pioneer. Van Sant can’t quite contain his inventive tendencies, though, and he sprinkles the film with some clever and interesting visual flourishes, such as using grainy, blotched 16mm footage of the various locations in San Francisco as his establishing shots and framing one disturbing conversation between Milk and a police officer entirely as a reflection on a silver whistle that gays carried with them in case of attack. While these artistic choices give the film both a greater sense of historical context and an intriguing flair, it also makes you wonder what Milk might have been like if Van Sant had felt truly free to match form and content.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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