Laura CliffordIn 1977, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) was the first openly gay man elected to a significant public office. After years of campaigning for gay and lesbian rights, his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors represented the liberalization of local politics and the passing of the country’s first gay rights initiative. Tragically, this thoughtful, forward-thinking and honest man would be deprived of achieving his full potential when former city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), gunned him down in cold blood. Director Gus Van Sant tells Harvey’s story in "Milk.”
This is a boffo bio that, for one thing, begs for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Sean Penn. The versatile actor gives a subtle, nuanced performance as a man who, earlier in his life, became comfortable with his homosexuality. His emigration from NYC to San Francisco in 1972 was a transitional period for both Harvey Milk and his new hometown. He opened the Castro Camera store in the fast-becoming-gay Castro district of the city. The conservative city government and police force reaction to this influx of gays and lesbians leads to confrontations, often violent, between gay rights activists and the police. Penn captures Harvey Milk, the man, to perfection.
Harvey, dedicated to the equal treatment for all in spite of sexual preference, soon becomes a leader in the movement and runs for the board of supervisors. He loses his first bid but it sparks increasing political awareness in the gay community. In 1977, after a citywide redistricting ordinance allowed neighborhood districts to elect their own candidates, Harvey won a seat on the city manager board of supervisors. After his election, Milk worked tirelessly for the rights of all, homosexual or heterosexual, making significant inroads into the conservative city and state politics.
Van Sant, working a script by Dustin Lance Black, does a solid job in telling the story of the hopeful rise and tragic fall of a good, honest man who just wanted what is right for all of his constituents. Sean Penn brings nobility to the role of Harvey Milk but the supporting cast works equally hard in giving character to the real people they depict. James Franco, as Harvey’s once lover, muse and best friend Scott Smith, is an anchor as the ever-available ear to his friend. Josh Brolin gives a performance of escalating tensions as Dan White, a troubled man who will be the catalyst to Milk’s unfortunate martyrdom. Emile Hirsch (unrecognized by me, even after I knew who the actor was) is solid as Cleve Jones, a young man who supported and aided Milk in his exhausting campaigns. Alison Pill gives the right note to her perf as Anne Kronenberg, the self-professed tough dyke who takes over as Harvey’s campaign manager. The only weak note is Diego
Luna’s Jack Lira, the young man who became Milk’s high maintenance and tragic lover. Lira’s neediness and Harvey’s acceptance of it did not ring true for me.
The production is opulent and convincing with the many crowd and protest scenes giving believable scope to the civil rights movement that gripped and changed San Francisco in the 1970s. Longtime GVS collaborator, cinematographer Harris Savides, uses soft lighting and shadow but gets a crisp period feel, too. Danny Elfman’s music fits the bill, as does editing by Elliot Graham and production design by Bill Groom. Van Sant and his cast and crew capture the excitement and change gripping the country after the turbulent ‘60s and the calamity of the Vietnam War.
“Milk” will get due attention come year’s end with Penn leading what could be an oft nominated awards choice. It is going to be a shoot out for the male lead but Sean Penn could be the quick draw winner. I give it a B+.
My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.”
In 1970, gay New Yorker Harvey Milk (Sean Penn, "Mystic River") laments to new lover Scott Smith (James Franco, "Spider-Man 3," "Pineapple Express") that he is forty years old and has done nothing to be proud of in his life. Smith suggests they shake up their routine and in 1973 the two move to San Francisco and open Castro Camera, which becomes as much a community center as a business. Four years later on his fourth bid for election, Harvey becomes the first openly gay man to hold public office as District 5's City Supervisor, "Milk."
Director Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting," "Paranoid Park") begins his film with opening credits rolling over late 60's headlines of gay bar raids leading up to the Stonewall Riots, setting the stage for the middle-aged entrance of one of the country's most inspiring civil rights activists and sure-fire Best Actor Oscar nominee Sean Penn. Van Sant has just finished a series of impressionistic films known as his 'death trilogy,' a trilogy which ended up earlier this year with an additional fourth film "Paranoid Park." With "Milk," a more straightforward film than his previous four, Van Sant combines a little of the unexpected underdog/inspirational teacher vibes of "Hunting" and "Finding Forrester" in a film that may end with death but celebrates constitutional freedoms and the far-reaching effects of one life.
After leasing his business space, the open and ever-inquisitive Harvey begins scouting out the Castro St. neighborhood. Noting a sign for the Eureka Valley Business Association in the liquor store window across the street, he approaches its owner about joining and gets his first blast of bigotry. Harvey decides to amass a list of gay friendly businesses and build a community. Soon he's known throughout the area, which begins drawing gays in record numbers, as the Mayor of Castro Street. Approached by teamster boss Allan Baird to rally the gay community to boycott Coors Beer for unfair business practices, Harvey ensures that the beverage disappears from Castro bars and the teamsters hire their first known gay drivers. It is the first evidence of his newly found political clout.
Harvey draws out other activists and soon has a political base including Dick Pabich (Joseph Cross, "Running with Scissors") and Jim Rivaldo (Brandon Boyce, "Public Access"). He turns around teenaged street hustler Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, "Into the Wild," "Speed Racer"), who becomes a powerful organizer. By his second year on Castro Street, Harvey has run for, and lost, the City Supervisor seat in his ward and in his third run, against Art Agnos for the California State Assembly, he receives advice from his opponent that he takes to heart - to focus on the positive and give people hope. "You gotta give 'em hope" becomes one of Harvey's mottos. But his campaigns have taken a toll on his relationship and Milk is ready to chuck in the towel - until, that is, Jim Rivaldo tells him about the redistricting of Ward 5, a move that will draw a line around Castro and the Haight. Surely Harvey can be elected by hippies and gays! In 1977, he does, but the love of his life has left. Harvey takes in a needy Mexican, Jack Lira (Diego Luna, "Open Range," "The Terminal"), whose dramatic tantrums perplex Harvey's circle. With less than one year in office, Harvey becomes a national figure, taking on religious right orange juice shiller Anita Bryant and her bid to deny anti-discriminatory rights to homosexuals in Dade County, and defeating California State Senator John Briggs's (Denis O'Hare, "Changeling") Proposition 6, which called for the firing of homosexual school teachers (it is ironic that "Milk" is being released just as Proposition 8 to allow gay marriage in CA was defeated). But Harvey's popularity with his constituents and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber, "Titanic") is envied by fellow City Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin, "No Country for Old Men," "W."), a troubled former San Francisco cop and fireman whose causes haven't received the support that Harvey's have.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (HBO's "Big Love") faced a huge task in bringing just the last eight years of Harvey's life to the screen, as so much change was affected by one person (besides the fact that the subject was covered before, in 1984's Oscar winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk"). Before Harvey, 'the Castro' was only a street, there was no rainbow flag, and gay marriage probably had barely occurred to anyone. Even the pooper scooper laws of today began in Ward 5's City Supervisor's office. Milk was a man who wanted to make life better for all - the aged and alienated, minorities, the mentally ill. He encouraged people to 'come out of the closet' so that 'they' could 'get to know us,' a revolutionary idea. It is astonishing to learn that in his second bid for office, Advocate publisher David Goodstein (Howard Rosenman) refused to back him, afraid to make waves. Black covers all the bases, and he and Van Sant take particular care to flesh out Dan white, not simply presenting him as a monster (White shot both Milk and the Mayor in City Hall and was convicted of manslaughter after the famous 'Twinkie defense' in which his attorney blamed his diet. There isn't a Hostess wrapper in sight here). If there is a minor problem with "Milk," it is that there is such a huge cast of characters orbiting Harvey that some of their introductions and timelines are confusing, particularly in the case of Cleves. The filmmakers also rely heavily on the recording Harvey made to be listened to 'in the event of my assassination' in the early going. Harvey's acknowledgement of himself as potential target is certainly of interest, but the action could have been left to speak for itself. As Milk was an opera lover, Black uses "Tosca" symbolically, driving the point perhaps a little too heavily at film's end.
Above all, Sean Penn brings Harvey Milk to life with a performance most uncharacteristic for the actor, an optimism and gentleness perhaps only glimpsed in "I Am Sam's" mentally challenged father, Sam Dawson. Penn is playful while still allowing Milk's intellect to shine through and he recreates Harvey as a man whose openness invited everyone in, a sweet guy who inspired others to be their best. Sporting Milk's New Yawk accent and a slightly elongated nose, Penn doesn't really look like Milk, but one quickly forgets one is watching Penn, so completely does he immerse himself in this role. His chemistry with Franco, also grounded thoroughly in character, is natural and strong - you can feel the love in the air as Harvey surprises his lover with a pie in the face on a birthday, a favorite trick of Milk's, then ducks for cover screaming for asylum. The scenes between Penn and Brolin are also charged, at first hesitant attempts to work together, later more divisive. A comment Penn's Milk makes regarding the potentially confused nature of White's sexuality is sympathetically explored when the man shows up drunk at Harvey's wildly gay 48th birthday celebration. Brolin's been on an amazing run of late. Emile Hirsch, who acted under Penn's direction last year, is almost unrecognizable as his protege Cleves. Diego Luna also sinks into the skin of a needy flamboyant gay man, a stray rescued by Milk's big heart (and need for uncomplicated home life that grows very complicated indeed). Cross and Boyce, as well as Kelvin Yu's ("Cloverfield") Michael 'Lotus Blossom' Wong and "High School Musical 3's" Lucas Grabeel as customer turned documentor/activist Danny Nicoletta form a believable base for Milk's office while retaining their individuality. As lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, Alison Pill ("Pieces of April," "Dan in Real Life") is a strong female character in an all-male environment and a symbol of the broadening of Milk's reach.
Period detail is terrific and Van Sant wisely picks and chooses between archival footage and recreation when the real thing (Anita Bryant media coverage, Feinstein's announcement of the shootings on the steps of City Hall) punches. The director is working on a larger scale than he has before and his recreations converge nicely with news broadcasts and stills of the era. Cinematographer Harris Savides, who covered 70's San Francisco for David Fincher's "Zodiac" last year, forgoes the dreamy images of Van Sant's "Elephant" for a slightly washed-out style more evocative of its time.
"Milk" is an inspirational biopic that refuses to sanctify its subject - Harvey, for one thing, betrayed his executioner, even if in so doing he upheld his own beliefs. Van Sant's film, though, reflects a man of both passion and compassion, and in recreating Milk's story on screen becomes its own civil rights statement.
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