It's been a long three years since Brokeback Mountain, the last gay-themed movie to win both critical accolades and mainstream appeal. Now, at last, with Milk—starring Sean Penn as the slain gay-rights activist—we have another contender for widespread acceptance from all quarters. It seems that the movie has had more starts, stops, casting announcements and directors than the screen version of Evita. But unlike that luckless, flawed movie, and many other by-the-numbers biopics, Milk arrives without compromises or casting glitches.
The movie is helmed by openly gay director Gus Van Sant, working from an original script by gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Together, they've created a straightforward biopic that is both the compelling story of an ordinary man whose activism turned him into an extraordinary icon and a fascinating moment in our gay history. It's a wonderful, full-bodied movie that earns its tears honestly, driven by Penn's Oscar-worthy performance. ( See the interviews that begin on the cover of this issue. )
At the outset Van Sant gives us a brief overview, via vintage footage and photographs, of the shameful history of gay-related abuses in this country, and then plunges us into the early days of the gay-rights movement in the early 1970s. This is interspersed with Penn as Milk, sitting in a darkened room dictating his will into a tape recorder, already aware that his life is in danger. ( This framing device bookends the film. ) We learn immediately that Milk, the first elected openly gay official in the country, and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone ( Victor Garber ) have been shot and killed.
It seems that we're in for a very dark road—and based on Van Sant's previous efforts, that's a fair supposition—but Milk was a naturally ebullient man, an optimist with a goofy grin, able to turn the bleakest losses into a personal victory, and Penn captures all these things in his endearing performance, lifting the spirit of the movie. After the opening prologue, Black's script takes us back eight years earlier as Harvey turns 40 and is living in New York. The Bronx-accented Harvey bumps into James Franco's Scott Smith and, within moments, the quietly magnetic Harvey has enticed the much younger man into his bed. Five minutes into the movie—with no fuss, muss and no apologies—we have a sensual love scene between Penn and Smith that establishes the intimacy of the two characters and supplies the rest of the movie with its emotional grounding.
The scene shifts to San Francisco in 1971, when the couple relocated there and, for the first half of the movie, focuses on their relationship. If there is a gay sensibility in the film's approach, it is in this first half when the relationship between the two men is presented as the norm rather than the exception.
Then the Anita Bryant anti-gay campaign galvanizes Milk. Working out of his camera shop in the Castro district of the city, he and others ( including Emile Hirsch's Cleve Jones ) begin to organize themselves to fight for gay rights. Harvey quickly emerges as a natural leader but as he begins to run repeatedly for public office the movie, by virtue of the number of races run and lost ( one loses count ) , becomes a tad confusing. The arrival of Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg, a tough dealmaker with a record of closing deals at city hall ( and the film's lone lesbian ) , signals a change in the previously shaggy Milk's approach—the grassroots style is melded with traditional political campaign tactics and, in 1977, Harvey is victorious.
By that point his relationship with Scott is a casualty and, soon, Milk begins seeing the emotionally needy Jack ( Diego Luna, memorable in a brief role ) . Harvey also meets the uptight, conservative Dan White ( Josh Brolin ) , who has also been elected a supervisor in his district. The two get along at first, though Harvey suspects that White is a closet case, and eventually his passion for gay rights trumps any chance they have of working together. 'This is not just a job or issues. This is our lives,' he tells White as the film moves toward its dreadful climax, White's assassinations of Harvey and the mayor.
The film ends with a re-creation of the candlelit march held in honor of Harvey and Moscone and, momentarily, I wanted it to go on. But by that point I'd also written on my pad, 'How can I possibly be objective about a movie that is so close to my heart?' and I realized that there are movies that touch us so personally that we become awash in them. For me, Milk is one of those films.
I can tell you that Van Sant, working with cinematographer Harris Savides, has again eschewed the early visual flourishes that were hallmarks of Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho. I can also tell you that I think Milk is an unadorned masterpiece, but then I am a middle-aged gay man who has wanted to see a feature-film version of Harvey's story since I first watched the1985 Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. So that's my caveat and, having gotten that out of the way, I want you to go in droves to see Milk and then take to the streets to overturn Proposition 8 and every other asinine attempt to discriminate against Our People and I want you, especially, to take to heart Harvey Milk's battle cry:
Never blend in.
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