The story of Harvey Milk is well known and has been told on film before – most notably in the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. A studio feature based on Milk’s life has been labored over for years and Gus Van Sant was finally able to bring the project about. This biography, titled simply Milk, begins in New York when Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) is celebrating his 40th birthday and feeling like he has accomplished nothing of significance. He decides to head to San Francisco and gets involved in political activism where Milk becomes the first openly gay man elected to public office in the US. Subsequently, he is assassinated.
The movie Milk focuses solely on this period of Harvey Milk’s life. This is an inspiring story of political activism and how one man can make a difference. Milk arrives in San Francisco living in the Castro district, a gay neighborhood. He and his lover open a store called Castro Camera. Soon, Milk finds himself in political activism and after failed attempts to run for office he is elected as one of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Gay rights’ is the issue that Milk fights for and he amasses a staff, entirely of homosexuals, who believe in the cause. Milk works closely with conservative supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) in a bit of political gamesmanship. Milk knows the difficulty of obtaining White’s support for gay rights so they discuss helping support an issue each wants to succeed. The opportunistic and press-savvy Milk succeeds in getting gay rights passed, but when White loses out on his plans for a new psychiatric center it furthers his resentment.
The major event in Milk covers the 1978 ballot initiative in California to ban homosexuals from employment in the state’s public schools. Milk led the movement in opposition of the measure. Shortly after this victory, Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone, are assassinated by Dan White. The political battles that take place in televised debates, public speeches in front of partisan crowds, political maneuvering comprise the most interesting segment of Milk. While the issue of civil rights is important, it is the ability of one man to mobilize a large community into political activism that the filmmakers capture so well.
Sean Penn is superb as Harvey Milk. He flashes a quick smile and he is forceful when giving a speech rallying supporters. He has nice quiet moments too where he confronts his followers to come out to their families and friends. Penn refrains from showing Milk as a righteous person. He is an opportunist and we see how his personal relationships with those closest to him suffer. Josh Brolin continues his run of terrific performances as Dan White. Brolin gives us a sense of this man’s resentments bubbling beneath the surface ready to explode. He’s not shown to be some ignorant religious homophobe. Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and James Franco all inhabit their roles completely.
Gus Van Sant returns to more commercial form in this compelling biopic. He does something difficult but important which is to make Milk more than just a gay story. It would’ve been simple to turn it into a propaganda piece for homosexuality and some may still view it as such, but that would be a short sighted view. I think people can appreciate the movie for the political activism portrayed regardless of one’s stance on the issues. Dustin Lance Black wrote the script and he did a great job of immersing us in the movement. The movie tends to gloss over Milk’s promiscuous relationships but it doesn’t portray him as a saint either.
The movie was released to coincide with the 2008 election where voters decided on the measure Prop. 8. This restricted same-sex marriage from being legalized in California. While watching Milk it is easy to imagine Harvey Milk engaged in the debate knowing that if he were alive today he would be fighting for the cause he became a martyr for.