MILK (2008) writ. by Dustin Lance Black, dir. by Gus Van Sant based on Rob Epstein’s documentary “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk”
May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
Gus Van Sant has taken a “gay” story and made it an American story. Milk is anchored by a career-best performance from Sean Penn as real life LGBT advocate and local San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, inadvertently made a martyr for the LGBT revolution of the late 70’s and early 80’s. IN the titular role, Sean Penn becomes Harvey Milk. If you watch the real Milk in Rob Epstein’s documentary “the Life and Times of Harvey Milk” (1984), upon which this film was based, Van Sant’s Milk feels like a more intimate version of that documentary, with this concept buoyed by Penn’s steady voice over as Harvey recording his memoirs. It’s an effective narrative tool as we see Harvey’s quiet, contemplative side, contrasting his boisterous public persona. Penn embodies Milk, heart and soul in a fearless tour de force. He’s subtle, flamboyant, smart, silly, tragic and most importantly, relatable. We follow Harvey as he experiences a sexual and social awakening that takes him from New York City, to San Francisco’s Castro district, gay mecca of the United States, where the formerly aimless 40 year old Harvey discovers a passion for local civics, becoming politically active in his district as he witnesses gay rights trampled on by local police and city officials. He rallies the gay community in a way nobody has before him. He turns the Castro into a virtual safe haven for people to be themselves, regardless of sexual orientation, personal style or age. It’s an inspirational film with some impressive performances that defy stereotypes. Franco in particular gives an outstanding performance as Harvey’s first boyfriend seen in the film, the straight laced, studly Scott Smitth, a man who seemed uncomfortable in the exuberant, LGBT madhouse of the Castro. His outlier position is made all the more conspicuous by Harvey’s choice of a new boyfriend in the sensitive, immature and effeminate Jack Lira, portrayed by Diego Luna in a performance that is equal parts annoying and tragic. Allison Pill and Emile Hirsch lead the cast of young actors portraying the youth who rally around Milk’s vision. Emile Hirsch in particular disappears into the flamboyant but hard working and real life social justice organizer Cleve Jones. Milk’s political and social opposition is portrayed with an even tone by James Brolin as straight laced but vulnerable family man Dan White, Milk’s primary political opposition. In a stroke of brilliance, Victor Garber plays Mayor Moscone and Denis O’Hare acts as anti-gay Conservative advocate John Briggs (O’Hare and Garber are gay in real life). The inevitable conclusion to this tragic true story isn’t depressing or sad. It’s uplifting. We see Harvey’s legacy live on in the people he taught how to advocate for themselves. He literally created a community and a movement which lives on today and was the spring board towards making all forms of sexuality mainstream and more equal than had Milk done nothing. It’s a landmark film and a vital story in a cultural struggle that, while far from over, was given the necessary voice and recognition by an aimless 40 year old bachelor from NYC who moved to San Francisco on a whim, with no clue how historic and renowned his journey would prove to be.