Milk (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Milk Poster

30 years have passed since the assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and, the ballot passage of California's recent Proposition 8 notwithstanding, advances have been made in the area of gay rights, although there are still many hurdles left to be cleared. Gus Van Sant points his camera back to the 1970s to capture a small series of similarities to today's climate as filtered through huge refracted differences. By imbuing the characters with humanity and personality, Van Sant avoids the obvious traps of making Milk a sycophantic tribute or a slickly made piece of propaganda. The story sticks as close to the facts as any bio-pic I can think of and Van Sant uses plenty of genuine '70s stock footage to amplify the period verisimilitude. As important as is Milk's contribution to understanding the turbulent world of three decades past, the film is equally notable for its ability to reflect how the fight for which Milk died still rages.

Milk represents a "hybrid" film for Van Sant - a fusion of two phases of his career. In the late 1990s, Van Sant had an extended flirtation with mainstream movie making (most notably Good Will Hunting), a period that had many wondering aloud whether he had "sold out" or "cashed in." In response to this, he began a series of non-commercial, deeply personal motion pictures, culminating in last year's Paranoid Park. With Milk, Van Sant weds a straightforward linear narrative and high-profile cast with a subject matter that has genuine resonance for him. This is his most accessible film since 2000's Finding Forrester, but it remains to be seen whether the viewing public is ready to accept a non-campy, openly gay protagonist like Harvey Milk.

Those who have grown up within the gay subculture or who have spent any significant time in San Francisco probably know who Harvey Milk is. For almost everyone else, however, he is at best an historical footnote and more likely an unknown. As depicted in the movie, Milk (Sean Penn) and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco), depart New York for Frisco in 1972. They move to Castro Street and spend their pooled savings to open a camera store. Although the neighborhood is fast becoming a gay hangout, many of the "holdover" businesses are hostile as are the police. The flamboyant Milk soon becomes an activist and attracts a small group of devoted followers, including Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), who would become one of Milk's closest confidants. In 1977, following several unsuccessful runs for office, Milk wins an election for Supervisor, becoming the first openly gay man on an already liberal board. Milk soon becomes embroiled in a struggle against the so-called Proposition 6 - a referendum designed to allow school boards to fire gay teachers - and shows Americans there is nothing pernicious about being a homosexual. He wins the battle but is gunned down shortly thereafter at the age of 48. (Lest some consider this a spoiler even though it is a matter of the historical record, Van Sant shows a newsclip of Diane Feinstein announcing the assassination early in the film.)

While Milk's fight was specifically for gay rights, it's easy to see him as a civil rights champion in a broader sense, and this is the light in which Van Sant illuminates him. Even homophobes should be able to appreciate the importance of equal rights for any group, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. It is not unreasonable to surmise that, at some point in the future, current majorities could become minorities and, at that point, they will be grateful for the protections that Milk and others like him fought so long and hard for. As a result, the struggle depicted in this movie takes on the more universal aspect of one man warring against a better funded, intractable system.

According to Van Sant, the California vote with respect to Proposition 6 represented a cultural fork in the road for this country, and Milk places its audience at ground zero. Milk is struggling against a tide of evangelical homophobia whipped up by pop-star-turned-activist Anita Bryant. The template of where such intolerance can lead - 1930s Germany - gives too few people pause. Milk's tactic is simple: humanize those the evangelicals would demonize. He asserts that two out of three who know a homosexual will not vote to have his/her rights stripped away.

Sean Penn is a chameleon of an actor who shows uncommon discipline when it comes to choosing his roles, although one would have to be naïve to assume that the potential of an Oscar nomination didn't enter his thinking when it came to accepting the part. Despite its low budget, Milk is clearly being positioned as an Oscar contender - if not for Best Picture then at least for Best Actor. Sometimes, so much prestige surrounding a performance can make it seem artificial or overhyped but, to his credit, Penn shrinks his ego and allows us to see only Harvey Milk. A more remarkable transformation, however, belongs to Josh Brolin, who portrays Milk's political opponent and fellow Supervisor, Dan White. Brolin is getting a lot of kudos for his caricatured portrayal of George W. Bush in W. , but his work here is more complete. White is a divided, tortured individual and Brolin shows us this more through expressions and mannerisms than by reciting Milk's dialogue. Emile Hirsch, who starred for Penn in Into the Wild, co-stars with him here, perhaps reflecting an off-screen mentor/protégé relationship.

Milk feels like an important picture, but not in a way that makes it tedious to watch. There's no pretentious sheen to the proceedings. In fact, the essential story is comprised of basic elements: the triumph of the underdog, David vs. Goliath, and the American tragedy of a strong voice silenced too soon. Knowing how the story ends merely emphasizes the importance of the steps taken to get to that point. Van Sant is cognizant of the film's political applicability to current events, but chose to release the film after Election Day rather than have it pigeonholed as propaganda whose entire purpose was to sway voters. For those who are not dissuaded by the homosexual subject matter (and it would be unrealistic to pretend that the film's potential box office will not be depressed as a result of this), Milk represents a thought provoking, cathartic, and mostly true tale of politics and courage.

Milk (United States, 2008)

Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill
Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black
Cinematography: Harris Savides
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2008-11-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1