Equal rights, or lack thereof, have always been a major point of contention in American society. Every community that has been discriminated against has had pioneers leading the push for reform and equal rights. The feminist movement had Susan B. Anthony. The civil rights movement had Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the leading figures in gay community in the movement for equal rights was Harvey Milk. Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn in an Oscar-winning performance, tells the tremendously inspiring story of the man who would become the first openly gay elected public official. From his humble hippie beginnings in a San Francisco camera shop in the 1970s to the peak of his power and eventual tragic demise, Milk compels us. We root for him, we cry with him, we laugh with him, and ultimately, we triumph with him.
After a brief prologue, which tells us Milk’s fate via documentary footage, we meet Milk in New York on the verge of turning 40. He meets Scott Smith (James Franco), a younger man who is intrigued by Harvey. The two become partners and decide to leave New York for the much friendlier confines of San Francisco. They make their way to Castro Street and open up a camera shop, despite protests from some evagelical business owners in the area. The scene in San Francisco is tense. The cops run wild over the gay community; some are harassed, intimidated, beaten, and one is even killed. But, led by Harvey, they won’t go down without a fight. He decides the best way to change the system is by running for office. And after a few unsuccessful campaigns, he is finally elected as San Francisco city supervisor, where the campaign for gay rights, and against the anti-gay resolution of singer Anita Bryant, really begins.
Any further discussion of Milk is incomplete without mentioning the magnificient performance of Sean Penn. No matter what your thoughts are on homosexuality, it is impossible not to sympathize with Harvey. This is in largely due to the brilliance of Penn, who truly becomes Milk. He embues Milk with such a humanity, but succeeds in not completely lionizing him. Milk is not a perfect individual. In one instance, he betrays a fellow supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin). This moment marks a turning point in Milk’s and White’s relationship. Had Milk made the difficult choice and stood behind White, would things have turned out the way they did? The other standout in the cast, which includes Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Allison Pill and Joseph Cross, is Brolin. White is clearly a twisted individual. His fall from grace is spectacular and in a way, tragic. Despite the dispicable acts White committs, you can’t help but pity him a little bit. These are all complex characters, and the actors help you see all sides to them.
The editing in Milk is also quite noteworthy. Documentary footage features prominently throughout the film. The films final touching moments are mostly real footage, providing a stronger catharsis for the viewer. Even the end credits are artfully edited; pictures and videos of the real people interspersed with the actors portraying them.
Van Sant is permitted a view directorial flourishes that work within the context of the film. For example, a scene when a protest is being organized starts out as one man in a phone booth and and screen slowly splits into dozens of people spreading the word about the protest. Bright colors fill in the background, while a sort of bubbly pop/opera music crescendos (on the note of music, the score by Danny Elfman is also expertly done). Van Sant has ventured back into the realm of the mainstream (to a certain degree). This is his most accessible film since “Finding Forrester,” but that doesn’t mean he can’t be original.
Overall, I thought Milk was fantastic, one of the best of 2008. The highlight of the film was Penn’s performance, but it was by no means the only reason to check out the film. Milk provides a much needed shock into a genre which is growing increasingly stale and unoriginal, the awards-baiting bio-pic. No matter what your politics or beliefs are, you should be able to appreciate the courage on display by the characters. It’s a film I would recommend to anyone.