DUSTIN LANCE BLACK
GUS VAN SANT
Although the biopic may not the most innovative of genres, Milk is an exception to that point, since it is a film which calls for, and receives, strong reactions.
Milk is directed by Gus Van Sant, who despite handing in his most mainstream movie to date, does so weaving a visual tapestry of assorted real life footage, and post production wizardry.
The film begins with archive footage of police cracking down on homosexual bars, humiliating its inhabitants whose right to go out and have a good time – rights any citizen of the free world should claim – have been snatched away because of their sexuality. It is a move by Van Sant to always remind the viewer: never forget.
Based in the 1970s, Milk effortlessly matches the documentary footage splattered throughout, with choice set, hair, and costume design. And, knowing full well that the casting of gay actors would immediately lump Milk in the limited niche of queer cinema, Milk cleverly chose actors with broad appeal to draw in viewers, who may not watch a film about the fight for gay rights. It worked for Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain. And does so here.
Playing the title role is the definitive example of a no bullshit, anti-Hollywood, yet Hollywood superstar regardless: Sean Penn. An amazing talent, Penn has carved a career inhabiting his roles with the same intensity his idol, Robert De Niro, did in the 1970s through the 1980s.
As Harvey Milk, Penn strips away all of the intimidating posturing which makes him Sean Penn, and replaces it with a charm and camp that comes off as astonishingly natural. As a result, Penn simply becomes Harvey Milk: gay rights activist; enlightening speaker; shrewd politician; and media whore.
The viewer first meets Milk as he records his last will and testament. It then flashes back several year to New York City, the night if his 40th birthday, where he takes on a young lover, Scott (an impressive James Franco, who finally rises to his potential).
Scott convinces an unwilling Milk to stop hiding his true self from the public, quit his job, and start living a life full of ambition. The first step of their journey together takes them to San Francisco, where they open a camera store on Castro Street, which is located in an Irish Catholic neighbourhood. The openly affectionate couple do not receive a warm welcome.
The area’s overwhelming homophobic hate crimes and public brutality forces Milk to make a stand, ditching his long hair and hippie garb for a haircut and nice suit. So begins a long and strenuous, but ultimately successful political campaign, which won him the seat of supervisor of Castro Street, based on a ticket for not only gay rights, but for better rights for seniors and the disabled. Hell, his charismatic approach to politics even got the teamsters on his side.
Along the way he recruits spunky young activist Cleve Jones. He is played by Emile Hirsch, the gifted young actor directed by Penn to critical acclaim in last year’s Into the Wild. Milk also co-stars Diego Luna, as Harvey Milk’s emotionally unhinged lover, Jack.
As a visible and unrelenting symbol for gay rights, our hero Milk – of course – draws the wrath of numerous villains. Of the many, two are the most notable: first, there is Anita Bryant, a far right religious zealot, whose Proposition 6 campaign – which legalised the termination of homosexuals from all employment and teaching positions – was passed in Florida, and threatened to rear its ugly head in San Francisco. Milks’ defiance and defeat of the bill would secure his position as a national icon to the homosexual community.
Second is less caricature, but rather curious case, in Milk’s would be assassin, Dan White (Josh Brolin), an Irish Catholic ex-cop/fireman, who was often humiliated by Milk’s shrewd politicizing, and overwhelmed by a new wave of change within his district.
Brolin – who also played a universally despised figure in Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic W. – gives dimension to what could have easily been a stereotypical role. The macho swagger which Brolin evokes so easily works wonderfully, especially when it clashes with his tense vulnerability. Thus is a born a tragic figure, not justified in his actions, yet made more human just the same.
And that is the strength of Milk: it is a chronicle of humanity at its best and worst. “You gotta give them hope” was a rallying cry from Harvey Milk, and even though the film ends with his body slain, his spirit soars above the politics, the intolerance, and the injustice. These vile things will always be with and within us, yet faith will see us through.