Political biography has a long history in Hollywood.From Silkwood to Ghandi to Biko to Malcolm X, the studios have not shied away from presenting the life of a movement leader.But that leader, that individual, that person who came to either lead or be identified by a movement, had to have been killed, assassinated, martyred, for their story to be told.
So we have all the requisite points with Milk, Gus Van Santís stirringly fresh and remarkably poignant film about the political years in the life of former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to hold political office in America.
While this is not a traditionally biographical film, Van Sant uses the time we have Milk on screen to clearly document Milkís evolution from and empty and confused mid-career New York City professional to the role for which he has become known, the 1970ís activist and leader of the gay rights community in San Francisco.Sean Penn brings this home by portraying Harvey Milk as a radiant and energetic man possessed by a desire to avoid failure, to not accept no for an answer (both personally and professionally), and to be willing to learn in order to lead under his terms.
There have been a handful of films over the past few years that have had central themes with a strong and positive primary gay character.What Milk does that takes this film out of the gay genre ghetto is not treat anything about Milk, the movement he came to lead, or the lifestyle he embraced, as anything different than anyone else would have done under the same circumstances.Thereís no difficulty presenting lifestyle matters on screen here, no tsk tsking by elders, or family, or by a dismissive faith community.
Van Sant cleverly gets past the challenges Milk and fellow gay activists faced by using archival material to tell the story of the time.In one of the best on screen mixes of art and history, Milk dips in and out of both news clips from recognized anchors (Walter Cronkite is still alive, right?) who reported the story, and the woman who for years embraced the role as the cheerleader for the anti-gay movement, Floridaís sunny Anita Bryant.Bryant almost deserves an on-screen credit in this film.Her image pops up halfway through Milk, and she soon becomes the foil against which Milk defines success once he wins a seat on the Board of Supervisors.
But before that moment, Milk suffers from political rejection, and much time spent in the political wilderness.His first two campaigns for an at-large Supervisor seat gain him credibility, but not victory.His attempt to unseat an iconic Bay area political leader in the State House goes similarly awry, but for one significant lesson.In the most revealing moment of the film, Milk and political opponent Art Agnos talk after a public debate.Agnos tells Harvey that he has to be for something, that he just canít stand in opposition.
From this point forward, we see a different Milk, a cheery Milk, a Milk convinced that he has learned the secret to political success, and it lies not in street theater and opposition politics, but in onscreen visuals and support for change and a public declaration of hope.
The film turns on this point, and, accelerates until it reaches itsí tragic conclusion.
But along the way, Pennís Milk recognizes he canít do it alone, even with a team of offcasts and wayward men, some from his personal life, some committed to change, some just along for the ride.But theyíre all there, mixed in, evident to anyone who watches the film, or is familiar with political groups and issue based advocacy.
And through Bryant, Milk presents the challenge to his friends and his community to bring the issue home, rising up to challenge a statewide ballot initiative in California.In what would otherwise have been the penultimate scene in the movie, with Milk leading rallies and organizing events in opposition to the anti-gay rights themed Proposition 6, instead we have a mix of archival material, with everyone from Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter to Jerry Brown dropping lines about the issue.Meanwhile, Penn as Milk stays home in San Francisco, saddled by a boyfriend tormented by his own demons, and friends and colleagues who literally donít know if they can do the job they have set out to accomplish.Hope for them is harder to deliver when it means more than words.
Of course they win.The movement enjoys the heroís journey, with Milk in the lead.But the distinguishing characteristic of this film is not just Pennís brilliant performance, or the understated and equally skilled presentations by James Franco as longtime lover Scott Smith or Emile Hirsch as a hustler turned activist Cleve Jones.What distinguishes this film is Van Zandtís treatment of the story of Harvey Milk, and his decision to tell the story in circular fashion, starting with the end, and backdating us to the final moments in Harvey Milkís life, the moment when his former colleague on the Board of San Francisco Supervisors kills Mayor George Moscone, and then Milk.
This is a warm, trusting, and reasonably accurate presentation of an activistís life.Van Sant brings an understanding of the issues, as well as the history of the movement, to the screen.And he does this without alienating those who might not be interested in a story about a gay rights activist, or even those who arenít interested in the same.He simply tells the story of one man, and in so doing, and through Pennís dignified portrayal, brings back to life the name and face from a generation long lost to history.