Film Review: Milk

Artful, absorbing biopic featuring Sean Penn as iconic ’70s gay activist Harvey Milk should attract demanding filmgoers of all persuasions.

Perhaps because he’s not afraid to take chances, director Gus Van Sant can be hit (To Die For, Good Will Hunting) or miss (the Psycho remake, Gerry). With Milk, a triumphant chapter of gay history that turns horribly tragic, Van Sant again shows off his chops as one of the country’s most accomplished filmmakers.

Foremost, Van Sant convened an A-list cast that convincingly goes gay for the occasion, with Sean Penn especially effective as the fearless Harvey Milk. New York accent and Long Island moxie aside, he conveys a passion to lead and ability to get the right things done. Van Sant also had the good fortune to work from a script by Dustin Lance Black that skillfully merges both many key characters and a barrage of events in 1970s San Francisco.
It’s a nostalgic picture of a time brightened by a growing gay-rights movement nationwide but darkened by spoilers like orange-juice spokesperson Anita Bryant and dreary California state senator John Briggs, with whom Milk dared to debate on TV.

Scenes of prescient Harvey Milk dictating his musings and last testament into a tape recorder just before his assassination frame and punctuate the film. The narrative begins with Milk’s early years as a disgruntled Wall Streeter and his hippie-like flight to San Francisco where, with lover Scott Smith (James Franco), he settles into the funky, not yet gay ghetto of the Castro district, where he opens a camera store.

Covering the major sociopolitical events of Milk’s life, the film tracks his growing leadership in the Castro as a vocal gay activist who also champions other minorities denied voices. Much of Milk’s reform efforts go into seeking support from fellow gays and the wealthy. The testy and self-serving publisher of gay magazine The Advocate, David Goodstein (producer Zvi Howard Rosenman), falls into both categories, but he puts his money and influence behind another gay political aspirant, attorney Rick Stokes (Stephen Spinella).

Nevertheless, Milk, who gains the unofficial epithet of “Mayor of Castro Street,” builds a following and makes several unsuccessful runs for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with, importantly, Mayor George Moscone in his corner. His exhortations to “just come out of the closet” literally bring fired-up volunteers to his camera store door, including Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), a young hustler ripe for the activist bandwagon who becomes one of his chief allies and advisors.

When initiatives embraced by Milk change elections to individual districts, Milk finally wins his place on the Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into major public office in America. But two troubled men enter his life: new lover Jack Lira (Diego Luna), who eventually commits suicide, and fellow Board of Supervisors member Dan White (Josh Brolin), an economically strapped and tortured family man who eventually murders both Milk and Moscone.

Van Sant’s portrait is powered by his subject’s zeal, charisma and unflagging commitment. It also offers some nifty insights into the workings of politics—how, for instance, mutual back-scratching gets laws and measures passed, for better or for worse.

Milk is a stylistic tour de force, a seamless mosaic of re-enacted drama with archival material, and flourishes like the split screens that convey the growth and power of the gay-rights movement. Beyond the archival footage, the film’s production design does much to enliven the pre-AIDS, out-of-the-closet ’70s decade.

Milk has already been the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. But Van Sant’s biopic prevails as a unique and sweeping cinematic experience that is both exhilarating and horrific. What Milk will mean in light of the anti-gay measures just passed in several states is a matter for the pundits.