, 128 min, 2008
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Stars: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch
Gus Van Sant’s Milk is a moving, inspirational, sweeping portrait of a life; it pulled me in from the start of the opening credits, and never let go.
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) was a Republican working as a researcher at Bache & Co. when he met Scott Smith (James Franco), a dingy young man, on his birthday. “I’m 40 years old, and I haven’t done a single thing I’m proud of,” Harvey tells him at the tail-end of what is ostensibly a first-date. Soon, the two were in love, moved to San Francisco’s Castro Street, and opened a camera shop, with Harvey making the transition from clean-cut, closeted gay businessman to open and proud gay hippie along the way.
Milk became intrigued by local politics, being unofficially named “the Mayor of Castro Street” (or perhaps he gave himself the moniker). Harvey spent a few years aiming at being on the Board of Supervisors, running three times before being elected in 1977. At that point, he was the first “openly gay” man in public office, much to the chagrin of his close-minded, conservative Christian neighbors. He organized, hiring a lesbian campaign manager named Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) and campaigned hard for a gay-rights ordnance, acquiring his own bullhorn and often taking the stage on a box marked “SOAP.”
He became a good friend of local businessmen, union guys, teachers, gays and straights alike. He gave speeches, encouraging his people to rise up and “come out” to their families, friends, co-workers, bosses, and each other. He weathered death threats, a culture of violence against his community, the storm of intolerance from State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) and former-orange juice shill/Gospel singer Anita Bryant, led crowded marches for gay-rights, and became a respected colleague of Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). After becoming immersed in the local political scene, Harvey and Steve grew apart. Harvey had a propensity for attracting lost souls looking for a place in the world: the first is an occasional street hustler from Phoenix named Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, who last starred in Penn’s own Into the Wild), and later a troubled Latino named Jack Lira (Diego Luna from Y Tu Mama Tambien) whose path Milk ought to have avoided.
Once finally elected to the Board of Supervisors, Harvey locked horns with a friendly, Catholic, all-American-type family man named Dan White (Josh Brolin, continuing his streak of great movie roles) who didn’t hate Harvey, but who disagreed with his lifestyle and wanted to be able to make a career out of using Milk’s growing support to shepherd his own interests. In a drunken tirade on Harvey’s birthday, Dan all but came out to Harvey, resenting him for not “taking him with him” on his rise to political power; he would shortly resign his position. On November 27, 1978, less than two years after Harvey went into public office, Dan White walked into City Hall and assassinated first Moscone, and then Milk. He got five years in prison thanks to what was later dubbed “the Twinkie Defense” (low blood sugar made him temporarily “insane”) and returned to San Francisco to kill himself.
Gus Van Sant, an openly gay filmmaker, is a much beloved member of independent cinema, having made a splash with such cult films as Mala Noche (1985), the scuzzy masterpiece Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). His work since then has varied in quality, style and subject matter: from a quirky dark comedy (To Die For) to a series of spare, death-obsessed stylistic exercises (the two-man show Gerry, the Columbine-inspiredElephant and the thinly-veiled Kurt Cobain portrait Last Days, the skateboarder slice-of-life Paranoid Park), from inspiring Oscar-bait (Good Will Hunting) and its somewhat pale retread (Finding Forrester), to one ill-conceived remake (Psycho) and a literary adaptation that turned out to be a cinematic wasteland (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues).
With his portrait of Harvey Milk, Van Sant has perhaps made his best film and, in a way, his most personal. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black is a first-time original effort and isn’t interested in the full-sweep of Milk’s life; we get enough of the background in snippets of dialogue and voice-over, but the story really begins and ends with his political career, and includes Harvey actually prognosticating his own death at the age of 48. The screenplay is not above some light melodrama, and if the end of more than one relationship is clearly telegraphed, at least it’s in keeping with Harvey’s style; his love of opera is juxtaposed on occasion with nigh-on-operatic developments in his personal ife – it can’t end well. Still, this is an utterly absorbing vision of a unique and important person.
The cinematography by Harris Savides (Zodiac) is a mixture of 16mm and 35mm, with a hazy, grainy, gritty look that allows you to practically smell the seventies-ness of it all; you feel like you’re there. Anita Bryant appears in uncredited archival footage; you couldn’t make her up or portray her without it coming off as anything but a pale imitation – looking sort of like Kate Mulgrew, former star of TV’s Star Trek: Voyager, she may have been the Ann Coulter of her day.
The final sequence of shots is a mixture of first a recreation of the memorial march through the streets of the Castro District, with thousands of mourners holding candles in memory of Harvey. Then the film shifts to footage from the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), and we realize that the actual footage of the actual mourners is even more astonishing, and moving; what a profound effect this man had.
Sean Penn, as Harvey, never looks unlike Sean Penn, but rather embodies Harvey’s spirit. He was, we sense, an ordinary man who got caught in a torrent at the right place and the right time, attempting to make a difference. His supporting cast (Franco, Luna, Hirsch, Brolin, Pill, Garber, etc.) is spot-on as a growing army of lovers, supporters, and potential adversaries, all seemingly drawn to Milk’s magnetic personality. He’s warm and funny, attractive and well-meaning. He knows what he’s doing, and isn’t afraid to die for an idea. He was, we sense, a great man. One of the year’s very best and most moving films.
Note: The film was nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Brolin), Score, Costume Design, and Editing. It won 2 Oscars for Best Actor (Penn) and Original Screenplay. The film was also nominated for 4 Independent Spirit Awards including Best Cinematography and Male Lead (Penn). It won for Best First Screenplay and Supporting Male (Franco). The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) is viewable for free on IMDB, Flixster and Hulu.com.