His life changed history. His courage changed lives.
Director Gus Van Sant is a strange fellow. His oeuvre is full of original films about people who choose their own paths in life, but he’s never made a movie quite like this. Some will argue that Van Sant is merely trying to reach a more commercial audience, that he’s going mainstream, but that doesn’t diminish the strength of his work, an old dream project of his. The passion in this portrayal of the first openly homosexual elected to public office in California overcomes tedious complaints about a lack of “artistic innovation”.
The film begins with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) recording a message to the afterworld in case of his assassination. He’s summarizing his political career and begins in New York on his 40th birthday when he hooks up with Scott Smith (James Franco) and after a night of passion tells him that he’s unhappy with what he has done so far in life. They both relocate to San Francisco to open a shop in the Castro District, thereby helping to turn the neighborhood into one of the city’s most famous gay areas. The shop is a success and Harvey is slowly turning into a gay-rights activist; just like any other homosexual in the city he sees the police making frequent (and unlawful) raids in their neighborhood and realizes that blacks are not the only ones who should demand civil rights. He runs for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors but is unsuccessful until his fourth campaign in 1975; he’s elected the same year as Dan White (Josh Brolin), a conservative who spends most of his time on the Board opposing any legislation meant to make life easier for gays. In the beginning his relationship with Harvey is relatively cordial, but they soon clash. As Harvey deals with personal matters that are deeply troubling, Dan races to the abyss sooner than he realizes.
Milk is not turned into a simplistic hero
Milk’s story has been told before; in 1984 there was the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. This film looks like something a reporter would put together for a news story; the filmmakers occasionally includes real-life clips such as the one where then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announces to the press that Milk and Mayor George Moscone have been killed. The story of Milk’s career is very touching and uplifting. Parts of the film portray his relationships with Smith and the mentally unstable Jack Lira (Diego Luna); they help us understand the character of Milk, but his mentorship to future gay activists like Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) becomes a more interesting ingredient. Still, Van Sant doesn’t turn Milk into a simplistic hero; as soon as he gets to sample the taste of power, Milk finds it hard to resist. He had his arrogant moments as a politician, but one look at his opponents at the time makes you understand why. Penn delivers one of the strongest performances of his career; a lesser actor would have made Milk look like a stereotype, but Penn turns him into the real deal, completely disguising his own personality. Brolin is also excellent as the enigma of a man who ended up feeling so resentful and threatened that he went from preaching hatred to practising it.
Those were not the days, indeed. The part of the film that did move me the most though was not the gay-rights issue, but the scenes where Milk told Smith that he’s turning 40 and has accomplished nothing in life. In the eight years that followed, Harvey Milk made up for that in spades. We should be so lucky to follow in his footsteps.
Milk 2008-U.S. 127 min. Color. Produced by Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Michael London. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black. Music: Danny Elfman. Editing: Elliot Graham. Cast: Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), James Franco (Scott Smith), Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), Josh Brolin (Dan White), Diego Luna, Alison Pill.
Trivia: Matt Damon was allegedly considered for the part of White; Robin Williams, Richard Gere, Daniel Day-Lewis and James Woods as Milk. The anti-gay State Senator John Briggs is played by openly gay actor Denis O’Hare (perhaps the ultimate revenge?).
Oscars: Best Actor (Penn), Original Screenplay.
Last word: “At one point, I’d thought of doing it in a sort of fictional fashion, where the character wasn’t named Harvey Milk and where we’d shoot it in Portland, Oregon, and make it about a guy who owned a camera shop – just to get away from the biopic element where you had to show the real guy, which was sort of frightening. The biopic also wasn’t a form that I necessarily believed in, because you can never really get it right, you know?” (Van Sant, Interview Magazine)