Posted on 21 November 2008.
In a post-”Brokeback Mountain” world, the acceptance of homosexual culture still has yet to be penetrated, and with Proposition 8 recently passing in California, the movement for gay civil rights was dealt another significant blow. Released just after the hotly-contested proposal, “Milk” focuses on similar subject matter, fresh on people’s minds.
It is the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to U.S. public office, and self-proclaimed “Mayor of Castro Street.” Much like the noir classic “Double Indemnity,” the story is mostly told through flashbacks as Harvey (Sean Penn) narrates into a tape recorder the story of how he came to be a San Francisco Supervisor and lead the homosexual revolution.
The seeds of Harvey’s crusade to bring homosexual equality are planted almost immediately upon moving into San Francisco’s Castro District, which in the early 70′s was apparently not the place it is now. He stands back in the street with his partner, Scott (James Franco), admiring a recently hung sign announcing the presence of his quaint camera shop. A fellow business-owner greets him with a handshake that he wipes onto his clothes and makes it clear that Harvey’s time in San Francisco will not go smoothly.
It’s then and there that Harvey decides to fight for acceptance for his homosexual brothers and sisters, and his first order of business is the Castro District. In addition to persecution by fellow business owners, he and his gay brethren are repeatedly beaten and harassed by police for no other crime than walking down the street while gay. He figures the best way to incite change in the area is by running for public office.
The film depicts Harvey Milk as a gay Martin Luther King Jr., only requesting the simplest of things for himself and others like him: equality. However, obstacles continue to stand in the way of accomplishing his goals, even while in public office. Two major villains come in the form of Proposition 6 or “The Briggs Initiative” (a proposal to ban gay and lesbian teachers from public schools) and a literal one in the form of fellow Supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin). Milk’s triumphs and failures are here for all to see, and like all good history, hopefully learn from.
Director, Gus Van Sant, makes a welcome return to non-experimental features. It’s his first since 2000′s “Finding Forrester,” and he’s been missed. He lends an even hand to the script written by Dustin Lance Black (TV’s “Big Love”), who for the first time I can recall since Charlie and Donald Kaufman on “Adaptation” has his name displayed on the film’s poster as big as the director’s. It’s a strong show of support for the writer and his material that is all too rare. Indeed he has crafted a biopic that gives insight into its subject, what makes him tick and how he affects those around him. Black and Van Sant are content to not focus so much on Milk’s personal life, but the crusade of change he inspires and how he goes about achieving it.
Sean Penn embodies Harvey Milk with an intense fervor and luster that perhaps only Sean Penn could. He brings his fiery political persona to the title character that makes you feel he truly is the one that can mobilize a people. As befitting for the role as Penn is, however, I think the stand-out performance of the film belongs to Emile Hirsch as Milk’s right-hand man, Cleve Jones. It’s not a substantial role, but the subtle mannerisms and character traits he creates are astonishing. Although his talent has been touted as of late, especially for 2007′s “Into the Wild,” I felt the accolades for his performance in that film were more deserving for the physical transformation. Here, he deserves all the praise he receives. A special mention should also be given to Diego Luna as Jack, one of Harvey’s faithful partners.
The film has performances and portrayals nailed, but I feel it’s the main villain that lacks the punch needed for the film to excel. This isn’t a film about Dan White, nor is it Harvey Milk vs. Dan White, but it almost seems like Josh Brolin’s role is tacked on. Milk and White certainly interact, but their relationship feels hollow and rushed only to meet a pre-designated conclusion.
As much as this biopic is meant to educate the viewer on the life of a perhaps forgotten political figure, it is also meant to bring to light issues that we as a people still face after 30 years. It’d be interesting to know to what effect, if any, this movie would have had on the Proposition 8 vote, if released prior to the election. Alas, that was not the case.
“My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you.” These are the words Harvey Milk uses to begin his speeches to his followers. Is it a rallying cry? An ironic twist, playing on the fears of homophobes that homosexuals want to recruit them to be a part of their lifestyle? Either way, like Harvey, this film hopes to recruit viewers not already educated in its views on equality. The movie inspires those who wish to continue to fight the battle Harvey so desperately tries to win, and may even shine a light on the unwilling or intolerant.