February 06, 2009
On January 8, 1978, American politician Harvey Milk made history when he became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Tragically, Milk could only serve 11 months in office, being assassinated along Mayor George Moscone by recently resigned city supervisor Dan White, on November 27, 1978. But even when Milk's time at the office was brief, his legacy is enormous and his work as gay rights activist continues to this day as Milk has become one of the major icons of the gay rights movement in San Francisco. Naturally, Milk's life was the perfect material for making a biographical film, with two projects about Milk arising in the 90s: "The Mayor of Castro Street" by Oliver Stone, and "Milk" by Gus Van Sant. Both struggled in development hell through the decade, facing changes of cast, crew, and even strikes. In the end, Gus Van Sant's "Milk" survived, and with Sean Penn in the title role, was released the day before the 30th anniversary of the Moscone–Milk assassinations.
"Milk" chronicles the rise of Harvey Milk's political career from his arrival to San Francisco to his final days at the office. The movie begins with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) living in New York dissatisfied with his life on the eve of his 40th birthday. After meeting young Scott Smith (James Franco), both men decide to move to San Francisco, California. In the Castro District of the city they open "Castro Camera", but they find more oppression in their new home town, resulting in frustration for Milk. However, this and other injustices prompted Milk to use his skills as a business man to organize The Castro's gay community and make a real gay rights movement, with his aim set in the position of city supervisor. In politics, Milk finds his true vocation, and makes of the gay rights movement his own personal mission; however, his devotion to the subject begins to take its toll in his relationship with Scott, who after working as Milk's campaign manager gets frustrated by Milk's obsession. Campaign after campaign, the "Mayor of Castro Street" will find many obstacles in his career.
With a script by Dustin Lance Black, "Milk" focuses mainly on the years of Harvey Milk's brief but fruitful political career, chronicling the opposition he found as well as his several successes. Extremely well researched (Black met several of Milk's former aides, such as Cleve Jones), the film remains very faithful to the events in Harvey Milk's life, making the film an extremely detailed biopic about the gay rights activist. It could be said that, in a way, it's also a very typical one, as it follows the rise of Milk's career and covers the milestones in his career. However, what sets "Milk" apart from similar biopics, is that writer Dustin Lance Black manages to make of "Milk" more than a biography of Harvey Milk, as it is also a biography of the movement he started, and of the changes that were taking place in the United States at the time. But the most interesting thing about Black's screenplay, is that it truly achieves what all biographical films try but very few achieve: to become more than a history lesson and really getting the feeling of actually meeting Harvey Milk.
But still, as good as Dustin Lance Black's screenplay for "Milk" is, it would not had been the same if director Gus Van Sant had taken a different route for the film instead of his humanist view on Milk's times. As the story details every step in Milk's life, Van Sant focuses on his humanity, his passions and his obsessions, keeping a constant focus on how the gay rights movement became the purpose of his life, and how it affected those around him. Together with cinematographer Harris Savides, Van Sant creates a very intimate look on the movement from its core, following Milk and his entourage through their triumphs and tragedies with a very realistic touch. Charley Beal's art direction is also worth of praise, as the reconstruction of the atmosphere of 70s San Francisco (specially The Castro) is brilliant. Van Sant's directing of actors is remarkable, and his focus on the people result in a very vivid, natural and realistic representation of Harvey Milk's days, to the point that the camera almost feels like a real witness of those changing times.
Nevertheless, the real star of "Milk" is precisely the man who plays Harvey Milk himself, Sean Penn, who truly embodies Milk's charming persona going beyond mannerisms and imitation to actually transmit the essence of who the American politician was. Penn's portrait of idealist Harvey Milk feels very sincere, very realistic, going beyond the representation of a historical figure by making him a very human character. Granted, Penn had the heavily detailed research by Bland and Van Sant to work with, but still his effort is commendable in how he embodies what's known about Harvey Milk. But Penn's is not the only great performance of the film, as Josh Brolin, who plays Dan White, makes a terrific job in the role of the man who would become Milk's most dangerous adversary. Like Penn, Brolin's benefited by a script that portrays White not as a cartoon monster (which would had been the easy way out), but as a well defined realistic character, as complex and interesting as Harvey Milk himself. Brolin makes the best of it and delivers his best job to date.
The rest of the cast is very effective as well, with Emile Hirsch delivering quite a energetic performance as Milk's protegé Cleve Jones, and James Franco delivering a subtle, melancholic turn as Milk's lover Scott Smith. Diego Luna appears as another of Milk's lovers, the troubled Jack Lira, but Luna's performance is a tad hammy, making of Lira's personal troubles too much of a caricature. Still, the acting is the film's greatest strength, and what really makes the difference between "Milk" and other biopics. Because in my opinion, while Black's screenplay is certainly a remarkable work of research and writing, Van Sant seems to take an easy route and follow it to the letter, making a very by-the-numbers film out of it. I guess Van Sant chose to take a more traditional approach in an effort to keep objective, because that's another thing the film achieves: objectivity. While of course, it's a film done with a very defined political agenda, it remains true to the real events and does its best to remain neutral (it's humanistic portrayal of Dan White being the best example of this).
"Milk" is one of Gus Van Sant's most accessible films, and it's really helpful to understand a bit more no only about the figure of Harvey Milk, but also about the gay rights movement of the 70s. With its excellent screenplay and the powerful performances of Penn and Brolin, it's definitely a remarkably done biographical film (definitely one of the best biopics of the decade). However, it's nothing like Van Sant's more daring and experimental films ("Gerry", "Elephant" or "Paranoid Park" for example), as it basically plays safe and follows the basic conventions of traditional biopics. Nevertheless, the greatest merit of the film is how it manages to create a believable, objective and honest portrait of Harvey Milk and his message of hope.