- Released Internationally on 26/11/08
- Released in Malta by KRS on 04/03/09
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the United States. That was way back in 1977, but his life and story still resonates today. Only a year later, not yet 50, he was assassinated by a former colleague, but like all great activists his work and vision carried on and grew beyond his death, thanks to the consciousness and momentum he had helped create.
Not your average biopic
In the tradition of other portrayals of historic figures such as Gandhi, the film opens with the announcement of his assassination, yet then manages to be a relevant and absorbing film despite having already delivered its ending. Milk was largely unknown outside the US prior to the release of this film, which allows the plot and character to unfold with an element of novelty, despite being largely faithful to historic facts. We first meet Milk in hippie attire as a 40-year old who’s new to San Francisco, but over the next 8 years of his life we witness a physical and aspirational transformation that helps him overcome two electoral defeats and find the strength to finally gain his historic win, changing the lives of many homosexuals nationwide in the process.
Relevant then, relevant now
At the time, the main news items that drove Milk to start campaigning were the ongoing debates and referendums seeking to limit the employment rights of gay teachers in various states. Despite his achievements, we can fast-forward 30 years to today, when some of the same states are debating civil rights for gays, mostly involving marriage and adoption, and the issue is now one affecting the entire western world. At the time of writing, Milk has just won two Oscars – for Best Original Screenplay and for Best Actor, and both recipients gave impassioned acceptance speeches about this very current issue, highlighting how topical it is, and what a personal project this was for them.
“All men are created equal”
Dustin Lance Black, who penned the script based on historical archives and a couple of biographies, is a gay activist himself, and a lot of his previous work has involved gay issues. His screenplay manages to portray Milk as a true-life character, with both his flaws and fortes, and also includes a number of inspiring scenes of Milk addressing public gatherings, which help add the appropriate sense of occasion and history to the events on screen. Acclaimed director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, Elephant) is also openly gay, although his previous work has covered a broad range of issues and characters, without focusing much on homosexuality. His deft touch is visible everywhere, as he melds archival footage and newsreels with new material, yet never crossing into that ‘documentary’ feel, and telling Milk’s story as a story, not merely a sequence of events.
The focus of the film remains, and will probably remain, Sean Penn’s masterful performance as the titular character. Despite having the potential advantage of portraying a lesser known character, he still makes the physical resemblance remarkable, as confirmed by the real life photos shown during the end credits (I love it when they do that – it adds so much to what you’ve just seen). Ever since seeing the amazing trailer (see below) last summer, I was impressed by how different Penn looked. Subtle differences, such as mannerisms, posture and voice, help you completely forget the Sean Penn you might remember from Mystic River or Dead Man Walking. Whilst watching Frost/Nixon earlier this year, I felt that I was watching an incredible piece of acting. With Milk, it was only after the film that I realised how immersed into the character Penn had been, and how I had thought of him simply as Harvey Milk for over two hours.
Out of the closet and onto the streets
Complementing Penn, and never overshadowed by him, is the rest of the impressive cast. James Franco (Pineapple Express, Spider-man) starts off the film as Milk’s new lover, and their rocky relationship provides a backbone to Milk’s political career. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Speed Racer) is Cleve Jones, one of his most resourceful campaigners, and Diego Luna (Frida, The Terminal) is the next “Mrs. Milk”, who feels neglected by Harvey’s focus on politics and not on their budding relationship. The increasingly notable Josh Brolin (W., No Country for Old Men) gives a brief but complex portrayal of Milk’s political colleague and potential adversary, who may have orientation issues of his own beneath his bullish, traditional exterior. Held together by a mix of songs from the era, and sombre, elegant score from veteran composer Danny Elfman, the film has class written all over it, and is as entertaining as it is relevant.