Gus Van Sant's biopic of martyred San Francisco Supervisor and gay rights icon Harvey Milk opens with fifties and sixties-looking black-and-white footage of gay men being herded around gay bars being arrested, or loaded into police vehicles, in New York, Los Angeles, Miami. Some are defiant, most cowed or cowering, some with faces hidden.
We first see Milk as he picks up a younger man who turns out to be his partner, Scott Smith (James Franco), who remained a friend and influence throughout his life, on a subway station on the eve of Milk's fortieth birthday. This is a sweetly and humorously played seduction, and introduces Milk as a conservative-looking risk-taker who's looking for a new direction in his life. Smith and Milk soon pack up and head for San Francisco, where they open Castro Camera and begin organizing the gay population of the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco to advocate for equal treatment for businesses and their patrons and from the police, and Milk unsuccessfully runs for office several times.
Milk is an amazing film, crisp, almost clipped, in its verisimilitude and packed with symbols. Dustin Lance Black's script is historically comprehensive, if not completely factual, economically plotted with strong, believable dialogue. Every scene is saying a lot of things at once, and the symbols and themes echo meaningfully throughout. The central visual and metaphorical theme of the film is reflection, framed with narration of Sean Penn as Milk reading his "political will," an audiotape to be played in case of his death by assassination, and also featuring a multitude of reflective shots, with one of the characters looking through glass--a mirror, a window, a television screen--at another scene, or, indeed, the viewer being asked to do something similar, to look through the frame at another frame. When one of Milk's last lovers has a crisis near the end of the film, we see him drinking Coors beer, the boycott of which brought Milk his first visible political success, when he worked with the Teamsters Union to pressure that company, foreshadowing the end of his political career and letting us know that the boycott is over. When Milk talks about the importance of beating an anti-gay state proposition because it directly threatens gay lives and livelihoods, we see it on a t.v. screen with Dan White holding his baby reflected in it, a very different life with different pressures for Milk's future assassin.
Symbolically, the reflective echoes include (often through contemporaneous documentary footage or news reports) society being asked to look at itself, how the straight society and the gay society mirror and reflect one another, how men in love or hate reflect one another (and how they don't).
The film marks a return to "mainstream" filmmaking for Van Sant, though the subject matter echoes several of his recent independent films, including the boring Gerry and the criminally neglected Elephant--complicated relationships among men which turn violent. Though the films narrative structure is conventional, the construction of each frame seems to have learned a lot from his more experimental outings, in terms of symbolic impact and meditative weight.
Though Penn seems physically smaller than Milk on-screen, he's about the same height as Milk was. But Milk had an outsize face--forehead, nose, long jaw--that Penn, despite prosthetics, resembles a lot only intermittently, the most during a shadowed phone-call scene near the end where his own jaw is in darkness. But his smile, and smiling eyes, and his smiling, laughing performance in general, capture Milk's personality ably and winningly. Milk told jokes, found and exposed ironies, indeed in footage seems like a sort of merry prankster, and the film and Penn's performance bring that across extremely well. When Milk is serious or pensive, Penn can be that, too, but the real person seems to come across most during lighter moments, pies in the face or one-liners designed for absurdity.
Josh Brolin is blunt and perfect as Supervisor Dan White, Milk's straight doppelganger, an insecure but loudly posturing politician who even Milk's character wonders about in terms of his real sexuality. While that could be overplayed, nothing about White's portrayal is overdone in any direction. Like the rest of the film, played by the facts, the arc of his character speaks for itself. Isolated, self-pitying and feeling poverty-stricken as a public servant while Milk has finally seemed achieved the electoral and political success he has been working so long for, we see his envy, instability and violence clearly and starkly against the laughing rocketship of Harvey Milk (though Milk was not rich in terms of money or in a particularly rewarding relationship during this time, either, and this seems to add to the shallowness and meanness of White's envy).
Other standouts in the cast include Emile Hirsch as hustler and activist Cleve Jones, Diego Luna as Milk's erratic lover Jack Lira and Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone.
Like any good biopic, Milk ends with a character-by-character crawl updating the audience on the aftermath and consequences of the story. Each actor is shown in a clip from the film, which then gives way to photographs or footage of the real people. Milk honors all of them by bringing them to such bright, engaging life during an incredibly vibrant time for the gay rights movement in America.
Milk's best and highest message was always about freedom, equality and hope, especially for gay youth in a hostile society, and Milk captures and magnifies that ably. My only complaint is that I wanted to hear more of his historic Gay Freedom Day speech performed by Penn during that scene. It would have raised the film a notch to include more of Milk's soaring eloquence as directly as possible. But it is still a remarkable and worthy film which avoids most of its potential pitfalls.
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