Using flashbacks from a statement recorded late in life and archival footage for atmosphere, this film traces Harvey Milk's career from his 40th birthday to his death. He leaves the closet and New York, opens a camera shop that becomes the salon for San Francisco's growing gay community, and organizes gays' purchasing power to build political alliances. He runs for office with lover Scott Smith as his campaign manager. Victory finally comes on the same day Dan White wins in the city's conservative district. The rest of the film sketches Milk's relationship with White and the 1978 fight against a statewide initiative to bar gays and their supporters from public school jobs.Written by
'Milk' is another powerful mainstream American movie about gay experience. It seems destined to have the same kind of influence on the public mind as Jonathan Demme's 'Philadelphia' and Ang Lee's 'Brokeback Mountain,' both of which were prominent at Oscar time. Like them this isn't a great film but it's an important one.
In 'Milk' the topic widens to gay politics and gay rights. "These are not 'issues,'" Harvey Milk tells a major opponent, "these are our lives we're fighting for. " His own life peaked at a transformative place and time for homosexuals, San Francisco in the 1970's. A San Francisco Supervisor assassinated by the disgruntled conservative Supervisor Dan White in 1978, Milk was the first openly gay man to elected to public office in California. He was a gay activist who gained fame and political clout. "A homosexual with power--that's scary," Milk tells Mayor Moscone--an ally with whom he sparred, and who was assassinated with him.
If he hadn't been killed early in his political career Milk might have traded his jocular title of "Mayor of Castro Street" (the city's predominantly gay district) for the formal one of Mayor of San Francisco. Dan White himself predicted this.
While Milk sought the whole city's attention with a seemingly trivial cause--a "pooper scooper" law forcing citizens to clean up after their dogs, he has come to represent a profile in courage--a man willing to face up to Orange County bigots on their own turf, who insisted all gays must come out of the closet to unite in strength. The film doesn't idealize the man; his private life is obviously messy, and despite his preaching, he was in the closet to his own parents. His lover leaves him, and a new Latino boyfriend (Diego Luna) is totally unstable.
Every gay advance seems to bring on a backlash. After the 1969 Stonewall Riots (alluded to in news footage as Milk opens) more gay men and lesbians were out and proud, but Anita Bryant, the Florida orange juice advertiser and right-wing Christian gay basher, was on the rampage campaigning for measures all over the country to remove gay rights. In California in 1978 one of her many causes was the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6, which would have mandated firing all the state's gay teachers.
Today, while the election of an African-American as President makes the US look more friendly toward minorities, anti-gay measures are still on ballots in many states at election times. On the same day that Obama was elected, Californian gay people saw the passage of Proposition 8, put over by Mormon money, to outlaw gay marriage in the state.
Leaving behind the hermetic, personal wavelength of his best film 'My Own Private Idaho' and the stylized elegance of his recent quartet of films, Van Sant returns to a conventional mode closer to his 'Good Will Hunting' and 'Finding Forrester'--but this time with more scope and more commitment to taking a stand as a gay man with a wide audience. The writer for the film was the former Mormon Justin Lance Black, writer for several gay-related films and the TV series about a polygamist Mormon, "Big Love." Harvey Milk (a nicely modulated Sean Penn) first appears recording a tape testament in his final year of life, a scene that bookends the film. Penn's noted for emotionally overwrought roles but his Harvey Milk is someone who rarely loses his cool or his sense of humor even when he meets the hostile Briggs or regularly has to deal with his clueless, inept opponent Dan White (a fine Josh Brolin). Milk mocked the right-wingers' fiction that homosexuals are pedophiles who want to proselytize youth--that gays are made not born--by opening public addresses with, "My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you." It's a line often repeated in the film.
The movie, as is the way with conventional biopics, paints its subject's life in broad strokes. He meets his young lover Scott Smith (an appealing James Franco) while a corporate drone in New York. They decide to start a new life in San Francisco, and open a camera shop together on Castro Street. Before long Milk is in the thick of political activity, talking to Teamsters and cutting off his beard and pony tail and donning suit and tie to meet the general public.
Milk emerges as a true politician. Moscone compares him to Boss Tweed. Through leading a successful boycott of Coors beer for the Teamsters, he forges strong links with labor. Scenes are crowded with political coworkers, and resident cute boys.
Most of all the movie is a picture of community organizing and campaign management. This is told in broad stroke too, but there are many historically specific personalities. Milk ran for office many times before redistricting made a clear win possible. Scotty is his manager, till he can't bear another losing campaign and moves out. Next Milk "recruits" a cocky young runaway and street hustler, Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), who claims he can get a thousand gay men on the street on demand and also boasts "I don't do losing." With his new well-connected lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) he secures endorsements from the Bay Guardian and the Chronicle, and he wins handily.
It's unusual for a mainstream film to get so much into the practical details of local politics. At the same time Jack is jealous of Scott and Cleve and moving toward a meltdown, and Dan White, having his own more dangerous meltdown, is waiting in the wings.
As a San Franciscan I wish the atmosphere of the tragic finale had been properly amplified by a horrified awareness of the Jim Jones massacre, the news of which had emerged barely a week before White shot Moscone and Milk. But otherwise this stands as an essential piece of gay and California history and Van Sant's fluent, lively film couldn't come at a better time.
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