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How can incidents that occurred thirty years ago be relevant today?  How is it possible that a fight against injustice seemingly won a generation ago could become a battleground once again?  Just ask the residents of California and the nationwide shock that issued from the acceptance of Proposition 8, which made marriages between same-sex couples illegal.  In light of this setback in the course of human rights and in this year of political transition and expectation, director Gus Van Sant’s biography of the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, Milk, couldn’t have been delivered at a better time.

Beginning with his closeted days on the down low in New York City, Harvey Milk picks up beautiful hippie Scott Smith and begins to realise there might be a better way than a life of hiding for himself and his new love.  Go West, Young Men: Harvey and Scott choose San Francisco as their new haven, opening up a camera shop in the middle of the traditionally Irish-Catholic Castro section.  Scott and Harvey’s public displays of affection make their shop a center for other gays pouring into the area as well as a target for unhappy local merchants.  Unwilling to modify his behaviour one bit, Harvey is angered by the stories of police beatings and other injustices that befall the gay members of his community and his outrage sparks the first stirrings of activism.  In a short time, Harvey learns to organise protests and demand the civil rights denied to homosexuals across the city and streetcorner politics soon give way to bids for political office.  Besides his fight against the stodgy, conservative machine of San Francisco government, Harvey is challenged with a lack of support from politically powerful closeted gays, who are aghast that this out loud upstart could upset the apple cart they’ve carefully balanced.  It’s not enough to Harvey to merely be a man in power, for him the battle is about being a gay man in power, supporting the needs not only of the public at large, but the homosexual community he is part of.  With his cadre of devoted supporters, Harvey tilts at election windmills fruitlessly with the neglected Scott by his side until a rezoning measure finally puts him in the catbird seat to become a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  Harvey wields his power like a chess player, stepping on toes when necessary and an abortive alliance with old-guard conservative fellow supervisor Dan White will result in disastrous circumstances.  More than the story of Harvey’s rise to political prominence and sudden, shocking demise, Milk is an analogy of a drive spurred by righteous outrage at injustice and the power that every single person has to make things right.

Slightly faded colours and the glaring, bleeding light of its daylight scenes give Milk’s cinematography the look of the 1970’s it takes place in.  The use of archival news footage in the opening credits and throughout the film; such as jumped-up orange-juice shill Anita Bryant’s infamous televised calls to evangelical homophobia, demonstrates the bigotry that every gay person faced across the United States.  The parallels between the challenges faced by homosexuals in the 1970’s and those of today couldn’t be made more clearly written in Sharpie on a big white wall.  Harvey’s fight against Proposition 6, which would have made it legal to fire gay teachers, is echoed by the aforementioned Proposition 8.  His famous “Hope Speech,” read to a crowd of a quarter of a million in the face of a death threat, would not have sounded amiss in this era of change, where the election of Barack Obama has become a walking avatar of the sort of hope Milk spoke of.

Good stuff, this, with performances to die for.  As Harvey Milk, Sean Penn gives his greatest performance since he sported a pair of checkerboard Vans.  Harvey is an unlikely superhero, motivated by simply being fed up with things being wrong.  Harvey’s elfin charm and tireless compassion make him a leader in the Castro and draws to him a team of similarly-minded young people, who trust and follow him.  Penn plays Harvey as a man at first just learning to be comfortable in his skin and later in utter embrace of the person he is.  Penn’s Harvey is funny and caustic, sweet and mischievous; nebbishy and unrepentantly fey without becoming a parody.  He also has the smarts and charisma to deploy his Castro-based civilian forces with the strategic finesse of a general, first proposing to fight “The Machine”, then making it work for him.  Penn’s Harvey has a taste for the dramatic and enjoys the profile his position gives him, despite the pain and neglect it causes in his personal life.  Josh Brolin is also fantastic as the embittered Dan White, evoking the bewilderment of a man whose times are flying by him and simmering with pent-up fury when he’s unable to keep up.  

While clearly Oscar bait, the labour of love Milk is for Gus Van Sant is transparent.  There’s a feeling throughout the film of ‘getting it right’ and the choices that Van Sant makes on the side of showcasing the story and his players are surprisingly circumspect.  The pre-AIDS bacchanal that was San Francisco in the late 1970’s (- during the film’s press conference, actor Emile Hirsch told me that his real-life counterpart, Harvey Milk’s protégé, Cleve Jones, called it, “the ultimate candy store” for young gay men) is very much played down, with only verbal allusions to the financial dealings of one of the younger characters.  It’s an understandable decision, to have drawn the audience away from the fight for civil rights and into the bath houses or leather bars would have only been a distraction.  Be that as it may, there’s a skinny-dipping James Franco and a good amount of man-to-man affection (- and a Sylvester impersonator!) to let us know we’re not in Kansas anymore. 

Milk is a rare beast, the story of a significant life cut terribly short that manages to be uplifting and sentimental without an ounce of schmaltz.  The amount of time Van Sant spends focused on Harvey’s learning the ropes of the political process and how to affect change is a primer for a generation that may have thought activism was something left in the past.  As denoted by recent events, the spirit of making the world a better, fairer place is alive and well and Milk is a wonderful lightning rod for discussion as to how to harness that spirit and make things happen -  very much like a nice Jewish boy from Long Island showed us thirty years ago.

Well done.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

November 26th, 2008




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