Here’s a review of Milk, about the life of Harvey Milk, by my friend Doug McKeown. (I haven’t seen it yet but will because of his review.)
Let’s get two questions out of the way. Is Milk entertaining? Without qualification. Is it important? Resoundingly. Also funny, tragic, endearing, and rousing. There is not one false note from any of the actors, nor from director Gus Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (I will be seeing this one again just for the screenplay), or photographer Harris Savides. A very complicated story unfolds with absolute clarity, a story as much about the city of San Francisco as about Harvey Milk. Iâ€™d say more than that â€” itâ€™s about the actualization of democracy, about community organizing as the great force for social justice. Take that, Sarah Palin!
I was especially pleased that no attempt is made to be “delicate” about Milk’s personality, either his sex life or his out-sized ego, a forthrightness that makes him all the more heroic, I think. After a stunning opening sequence tossing us in medias res, and a conventional framing device (and foreshadowing), we quickly get to know Harvey Milk through the persona of Sean Penn, a smooth and easy task if there ever was one. He hooks up with a younger guy, Scott Smith, who has the movie star good looks of a â€” well, a James Franco. It is completely credible that Francoâ€™s Scott goes for the self-deprecating charm of this man with a face so open it hides nothing, who is so comfortably flamboyant, and finally, irresistible. The camera captures not so much sex between them as lovemaking â€” which is to say, as much warmth as heat. There is even what I would call nuzzling, in close-up. Whatâ€™s not to like? But there are inevitable strains. While we are ostensibly caught up in the difficulties of their relationship, the larger drama emerges as Scott withdraws into the background. An extraordinary moment in time elevates the Mayor of Castro Street to local hero.
In a memorable scene early on, in front of the Market Street camera store he owns in the Castro that will become a locus for political action, Milk essentially calls out a sassy twink to join him, or be â€œrecruited,â€ as Harvey mischievously refers to the process of lining up supporters of his cause. Of course, the little queen, played to riotous perfection by Emile Hirsch, mistakes the approach as a come-on, and loudly and repeatedly dismisses Harvey as â€œold man.â€ It is funny, but it is a bit of a shock when he says his name. This chance encounter between the transplanted New Yorker and the frivolous turner of tricks from Phoenix, Arizona, begins the political transformation of Cleve Jones, who in the course of the film will become a campaign dynamo. (The real Cleve Jones would famously, a decade later, found the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.)
The danger with accurately portraying a specific time period on film is that you risk distracting from the narrative, especially if you are creating scenes to be intercut with actual period footage. Hairstyle and fashion fads date quickly, and weâ€™re used to sight gags based on them in dumb comedies. Here, however, there is an offhand familiarity to the “scene” â€” the historical period and place just feel right â€” with only a very few, small anachronisms of language, which I hesitate even to mention, theyâ€™re so trivial. (Not so trivial, perhaps, is the near-invisibility of lesbians and transgendered people.)
This is the most assured (mainstream) work so far by Gus Van Sant, a genuine film artist. He delivers a complete drama with real visual style and brazen wit. (One fun example of the latter is an exuberant â€œBye Bye Birdieâ€-type collage to illustrate get-out-the-vote phone calls.) The blending of documentary footage is the most seamless I can remember seeing anywhere. The crowd scenes are remarkable, and all of the location shooting miraculously right. Even for those who lived through the 1970s, the events of the short years depicted here leading up to the assassination of Harvey Milk are riveting, operatic. That he loved opera is also referenced in this film, in particular by Pucciniâ€™s Tosca, and once more in a surprising way towards the very end. Not wishing to spoil the impact, Iâ€™ll say no more about it, except to remark that it is a risky, brilliantly imaginative leap to take in telling a true story. A very strong true story, but not about same-sex love per se, as already achieved by the fictional â€œBrokeback Mountain.â€ This one is about the right to love and have sex. It may be the finest political film I’ve ever seen. More than dramatizing a true story; it captures convincingly the truth about a whole political movement, as freshly active as today’s headlines: Prop 6 or Prop 8 â€” does it ever end?
Milk also contains what must be Sean Penn’s best performance to date. But everyone is first-rate. If James Francoâ€™s Scott is heartbreaking, Diego Luna as Harveyâ€™s problematic young lover, Jack Lira, is devastating. Josh Brolin as Dan White manages to accomplish the impossible, projecting enough of the murdererâ€™s inner life for us to understand, albeit unwillingly, his small-minded anguish.
For a couple of fast, fast hours, I spent a couple of hilarious, wrenching, inspiring years immersed in turbulent 1970s San Francisco. This movie does what all movies should do. Go see it.