Bottom Line: Gus Van Sant relies on his award-winning directorial playbook to piece together an Oscar-worthy, sentimental retelling of Harvey Milk’s rise to power and subsequent assassination.
Several states have banned gay marriage, probably most notoriously California’s Proposition 8. Meanwhile, in a giant leap for minority empowerment in the United States, the president-elect is, for the first time, not a white, heterosexual, protestant male (even if he was the Editor of the Harvard Law Review). Given these political ripples, award-winning director Gus Van Sant’s Milk touches on almost all the relevant hot-button issues of the day by reconstructing life in the Castro during the Gay Rights movement of 1970s San Francisco.
Van Sant is well-known for delicately crafted films like Psycho, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and Elephant . He’s also known as an openly gay Hollywood director-particularly relevant given Milk’s subject matter. Van Sant further has a reputation of not shying away from some of Hollywood’s racier, more politicized topics. Appropriately, then, Milk is Van Sant’s biopic is about the life of the first openly gay politician to hold an elected office in the United Sates. The movie closely follows the life of the eventually elected San Francisco Supervisor for District 5 (including the Haight and the Castro): Harvey Milk.
Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk is faithful, bittersweet and easily lovable. He’ll probably be nominated for an Oscar which, accordingly, means that Penn’s Hollywood Harvey Milk is perhaps a touch too heroic and sentimental. But this portrayal makes Milk a figure who, at worst, is that much more palatable to a mainstream audience. Emile Hirsch’s Cleve Jones is sassy and endearing. Josh Brolin’s Dan White is uncanny in its transmission of discomfort and uneasiness. There are no poorly acted scences as far as character goes, and there are even a few scenes where recent Northwestern RTVF grad Micah Stanek is clearly visible in a barbershop and a kitchen scene among the other Castro locals.
The tightness of the film is apparent in many places. It’s visually an incredibly satisfying experience, due in large part to Van Sant’s attention to detail: Unusually shot reflective surfaces for dealing with death and footage from the period woven in almost without seams abound.
Yet for all its attention to visuals, Milk nevertheless remains preoccupied with the biographical minutiae of Harvey Milk’s life. The film fast-forwards through much of Milk’s early San Francisco days, pausing mostly to lay the groundwork for Milk’s political career. And though it does occasionally dip into Milk’s private life, it does so in a way that is reserved, perhaps a bit too delicate. But this probably isn’t a bad thing since Milk focuses on that part of Harvey Milk’s life that is most accurately and completely available: his public persona. And since the film reads as just a touch sentimental, it comes quite close to being a textbook tragedy, a trait that extends Milk’s accessibility as an important political figure beyond LGBT history books.
Milk was a transformative figure for the Gay Rights movement as he was the first openly gay man to hold an elected office. Van Sant’s recreation of the period paints a portrait of a Gay Rights movement that is decidedly different form the one that exists today. Almost every character is some sort of refugee or runaway fleeing angry parents and life-threateningly homophobic towns to the buttressed, rainbow walls of San Francisco’s hallowed Gayborhood.
And they’re fighting, among everything else, Proposition 6 – a referendum on the 1978 California ballot that, if passed, would have allowed the potential for sweeping discrimination against not only homosexuals, but anyone allegedly friends with them as well. Van Sant shows this movement still empowered by a belief in the efficacy of protests, he illustrates a comically tight-knit community rife with nostalgic throwbacks that, according to Cleve Jones, we would do well to learn from today. The movie concludes on a predictably sad note and the recent tack in the politics of Gay Rights make the credits rolling up a black screen more ominous and immediate than they were probably intended…