directed by Gus Van Sant
written by Dustin Lance Black
starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O’Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel,
Amidst a backdrop of persecutions, arrests, harassments, and other attempts to stymie and reduce the visibility of gays, this film tells the story of one man’s peculiar path to local political power.
Harvey Milk (Penn) is first introduced to us while picking up the much younger Scott Smith (Franco) in New York. Together they realize the limitations for opportunities and decided to head West. Into the explosion of color and STD’s flooding into San Francisco they emerge and quickly set up Castro Camera which becomes a hotbed of political inquiry. From this touchstone an army of supporters and volunteers is established and these individuals prove to be valuable assets as Milk begins to direct his attentions toward political office.
The film can be viewed as a primer for the gay rights movement as it sashayed its honey ass throughout America, but most particularly in San Francisco. The film was made almost entirely in Milk’s Castro, a neighborhood mostly of gays who had swarmed upon San Francisco escaping whatever dull and oppressive life they had previously been forced to endure. There is a genuine sense of openness throughout this film despite very public attempts to deliberately quash the civil rights of homosexuals.
The arch enemies of this film are held up with the appropriate amount of contempt. Orange County comedian John Briggs (O’Hare) and singer Anita Bryant both undertake campaigns to reduce gay rights. Specifically, in Dade County, Florida, Bryant spearheads her mission to rescind a gay rights ordinance and is successful. Briggs creates Proposition 6 to allow schools to fire any gay teachers or those who are sympathetic to them. The film spends a considerable amount of time on these issues, showing the intensity surrounding the legislation with clarity and resolve. The film was released a few weeks before Proposition 8 went before the public in California. It seems clear that Black had it in mind when he wrote the script because the film focuses so much time on Proposition 6 and its potential implications for gay people not only throughout California but most likely the entire United States. Both Bryant and Briggs are shown to be bogeymen who stand for everything the film is against. Their implied bigotry reverberates throughout the film.
The film possesses an insider’s feel into an intricate world of self-determination and fierce political savvy. Milk is portrayed as a firebrand speaker with a true gift for getting to the heart of whatever matter he is attempting to convey to his constituents. It is clear throughout the film that Milk is to be seen as a heroic figure speaking up for the rights of those who have been traditionally rejected by normative society. He is shown as not only a voice for the gay community but all minorities who have lacked proper representation on the government level. Much of the genius of this film comes from the breadth of Milk’s essential message of hope which he maintained throughout his brief but eventful political career.
Sean Penn so readily takes on Milk’s skin that his accomplishment with the role can hardly be seen as simply acting. From the moment we are introduced through the duration of the film, Sean Penn disappears leaving us with an earnest, fearless, naked performance that deservingly won him the Academy Award. There is just something about the way Penn smiles that convinces one that his portrayal is genuine and touchingly heartfelt. After Proposition 6 was defeated, there is a scene where Milk and his associates are celebrating. Milk’s face is a testament of awe, surprise, exultation, and the pure poetry of unadulterated joy. It’s about as intoxicating a display of release and relief that has ever been displayed on film. It says everything about what this film is attempting to convey through its ritualized portrayal of a man who meant so much to so many people. The film, and especially Penn, establishes the significance of Milk as a viable human being whose worth is not merely limited to the political arena. There is tremendous warmth and desire emanating from the character, a freedom that the film clearly wants to impart to all those youths in small towns who find themselves no longer able to put up with unsympathetic conditions. If anything this film is made for those kids and screen writer Dustin Lance Black made this apparent during his acceptance speech at this year’s Oscars.
The relationship between Milk and Dan White (Brolin) is complicated throughout the film. White is a conservative Christian who is publically appalled by the homosexual lifestyle. His actual views are a little less clear, however. The film refuses to paint White as a mere bigot who shoots Milk out of hatred for gays and their encroachment on family values as defined by fundamentalist Christianity. There is something much subtler at play here and Brolin does a magnificent job with his character’s slow-burning rage at circumstances he feels are gradually conspiring against him. One gets the impression through Brolin’s performance that Dan White is at odds with himself and his public persona in politics. Brolin allows us to see a complicated man consumed with pride and unable to lose. The film would have us believe that White’s murder of Milk was directly related to Mayor Muscone’s decision not to reinstate White as Supervisor after he had resigned his post.
The actual Dan White claimed that he wasn’t going to shoot Milk until he smirked at him, causing an instinctual reaction that cost Milk his life.
The film explores the personal life of Milk, specifically his relationships with Scott Smith and Jack Lira (Luna). They are both fraught with complications that slowly disintegrate and eventually collapse in on themselves. Smith couldn’t stand the political life and simply walked away. Lira also had difficulties with the politics and sought a different way out of his predicament. They are both young men to whom Milk is fiendishly attracted and the film shows how they slowly become disinterested in Milk’s new focus and his intent on winning political office. Although they are main characters in this film, neither Lira nor Smith seem particularly present for much of this film. It is clear that this is a direct decision by the actors and not something akin to a fault on their part. They simply drift through the film not connecting with anything Milk is attempting to do. They are apolitical and disinterested with the hoopla that is a necessary component to any political campaign. Smith does return near the end as a stronger presence yet he remains elusive and impossible to pin down.
The performances in this film are all spot on and exceedingly subtle. Sean Penn delivers a nuanced, daring turn as the titular character whose strivings are made readily apparent throughout the film. He captures the longing, the infinite desire for change that fuels Milk’s entry into the political ring. One gets a real sense of the man’s convictions and his glad taking of the role as spokesman for the gay community. In this film, there is a sense that Milk fully understands his place in history and is willing to take the mantle and do whatever is necessary to ensure that he represents his constituents in the most effective manner possible. Josh Brolin creates a character who is also fully engaged in his work but who finds himself up against a wall at every turn. Brolin understands the depths of his character’s despair and demonstrates this through gestures and posture. This is not a case of a man driven by rage against the gay population. It’s far more complex than that and one comes away with a clear impression that Dan White feels trapped in his circumstances and upset that he may lose his way of life and holds Muscone and Milk responsible.
James Franco captures his character’s sensuality and it’s easy through his performance to understand Milk’s attraction to him. Franco casts his shadow over Milk and the film in a delicate fashion that is mercurial and consumed with tenderness. He portrays Smith as a clear force of good in Milk’s life who understands the necessity of creating a grounding for Milk that can be used to propel him into political office. Diego Luna is wonderfully irritating as a troubled, difficult man who is ill-prepared to handle the rise of Milk’s star. Lira is wholly disagreeable throughout the film and this is a testament to Luna’s indirect approach to his character and his ability to articulate Lira’s vulnerability and his lack of a demonstrable acumen.
Overall, this film offers us a direct link to a time that was fraught with complications that brought forth truths and embattlements that have resonated ever sense. This is a portrait of a man who found his voice in the tumultuous climes of public office which enabled him to pursue rights issues that deeply affected his constituents and forced issues onto the table that challenged the proscribed mores of the established order. Harvey Milk comes off as a visionary and a poet of the streets. His core message of hope comes through clearly and openly and one is left with a feeling that his death is a lasting and enduring tragedy that is made hard by Sean Penn’s fearless performance. Yet, there is also a sense that he accomplished more with his death than he ever did in life. His legacy is something that the film projects as something that galvanized people and made activists out of those who before had merely stood on the sidelines. Milk reached many more people through his death than the citizens of Castro. He remains a symbol that resonates in the hearts of everyone who has ever had the courage to come out to their friends, parents, employers, and co-workers. The film makes it readily apparent that this is what Harvey Milk stood for in the end. Total freedom and a release from socially-sanction bindings designed to keep gays from actualizing their potential.