Gus Van Sant’s Milk is among the best of 2008, a gripping piece of storytelling chronicling the injustice, boiling anger, eventual triumph, and the tragic end of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States. Milk helped to champion the rights of homosexuals on topics that are still being hashed out in government offices today and he was so submerged in the relentless campaign that it’s difficult to talk about the man or the movie without the movement.
The film depicts Harvey as a visionary that realized he was not just a charismatic leader in his community, but spearheading a nationwide movement that would seek to protect the rights of gay Americans. As the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Castro Street,” Milk rallied local businesses and directionless residents to his cause. His grassroots organization would go toe-to-toe with a political machine backed by the crusading Anita Bryant, who televised her intolerance for homosexuality during the 70s.
Almost as if Milk had envisioned it himself, the release of this important biopic perfectly aligns with the zeitgeist in modern day America. Thirty years removed from Milk’s San Francisco assassination, his life work is still extremely relevant as the issues remain unsolved. The proposition numbers have been changed, but the Gay Rights Movement still struggles for equality after the recent California battle for gay marriage. A defeated, leaderless campaign can learn a great deal from Milk’s preached message of responsibility and hope to continue fighting for what is clearly a civil rights issue.
No ballot should deny the basic human rights of another person, just like the majority of voters shouldn’t decide who else is allowed to punch that ballot. It took constitutional amendments and the might of the military to eventually allow African Americans and women to vote. A representative from each converged in this year’s historic election where Obama, Hillary, and McCain faced off as opponents in a country that has generally accepted candidates regardless of race or gender. In a way, Barack Obama’s groundswell support that made him the first African American president is shown here with Milk’s own ground-breaking win.
But I digress. The film is an emotionally stirring portrait of the movement lead just as strongly by the excellent performance of Sean Penn. Disappearing into the role, he no longer appears as the Oscar-winning actor, but a positive-thinking social activist. From the opening scene Penn transforms into the role, right down the most minute mannerisms and voice inflections.
But Penn’s portrayal also shows him as a flawed man, so consumed with the cause that it affects his relationships and blinds him from the darkness of his eventual killer, Dan White, played here in a subtle turn by Josh Brolin. Milk’s long-time friend, partner, and manager Scott Smith is played by James Franco. His performance shows promise for his young career in the way that Brokeback Mountain spelled success for Heath Ledger.
Speaking of Brokeback, if you were uncomfortable during the moments where Ennis and Jack embraced, you’ll certainly squirm watching this film. Milk makes no apologies about its intimate homosexual relationships, and it shouldn’t have to. But if you’re still making “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” jokes, you may just want to avoid this movie.
For the open-minded crowd, I suggest you find a way to see this film. Not because of the political value, but because of the sincere message of hope that is relevant to everyone regardless of the time or your sexual orientation.
4.5 out of 5.