"If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door."

Getting the dramatised story of Harvey Milk to the screen has been something of an ongoing battle. Back in 1991, Oliver Stone was originally going to produce the film after having written a script, The Mayor Of Castro Street. By 1992 Gus Van Sant was assigned to direct with Robin Williams in the lead role but he then left the project due to creative differences with Warner Bros. By 2007, The Mayor Of Castro Street was being prepped by Bryan Singer whilst Van Sant was back to direct a new script, that became Milk, by Dustin Lance Black. Singer's production stalled due to the writer's strike but Van Sant's moved ahead with Sean Penn now signed as the lead. Milk is the fruit (forgive the pun) of a long cherished desire to bring Harvey's story to a wider cinema audience.

...the hope is that this superb film will galvanise future opposition to such anti-gay measures.
So what's so important about Harvey Milk? I first found out about Harvey Milk back in 1984 (I was 22 and still closeted) with the release of Ron Epstein's brilliant documentary The Times Of Harvey Milk. I just can't stress how life-changing Milk's story was to me personally. Probably for most gay men of my generation the activism of Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, was and continues to be an inspiration. Milk's courage and hope in eradicating bigotry and his fight for equality certainly helped me to finally come out, recognise the rich history of gay activism and understand the need to continue the fight for equality, particularly in the early days of the AIDS crisis. It's as much a part of my gay upbringing as Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant. Van Sant's film reaffirms that struggle. It is ironic that Milk was released in the middle of the Presidential campaign of October 2008 and the general elections where California's anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 legislation was passed, paralleling the anti-gay rights Proposition 6 that is explored in the film. Milk would have been outraged at Proposition 8 and the hope is that this superb film will galvanise future opposition to such anti-gay measures.

Van Sant's use of archive footage is inspired
Milk opens with 1950s and 1960s newsreel footage of gay bars being raided by police, patrons being arrested and cuffed, finally capped by Dianne Feinstein's November 1978 announcement that Supervisor Milk and Mayor Moscone had been assassinated. This use of archive footage allows Van Sant to mark out his historical territory with the film, slipping the narrative back and forth through periods of time, embedding the drama within actual footage, creating a powerful verisimilitude. He pulls you into the times and places, in which most of the grand narrative is set, with great ease using this technique. The other device that works extremely well is the single narrator of Milk himself as he records his initial thoughts about a potential assassination, effectively his last will and testament, into a tape recorder nine days before his actual murder. The fact that you know Harvey's fate right from the opening titles doesn't dilute the power of the film, rather it energetically charges it towards a fateful conclusion which you know is coming and that you wish could have been different. Van Sant's use of archive footage is inspired and he mashes it up with faithful recreations of the events where his camera whips and whirls, matching the raggedness of the clips he's used. It often gives the film a dream like quality.

Sean Penn, playing Milk, provides a captivating performance
The film does tend to stutter into life, flitting forward in time until it finally settles down and takes the story of Milk and his first lover Scott Smith to San Francisco, an old camera store and the dawning of Harvey's political views. Various unsuccessful campaigns are covered until Milk wins a seat on the Board Of Supervisors for the city. Sean Penn, playing Milk, provides a captivating performance, incredibly well observed, thought out and powerful in his understanding of Milk's complexity. His mission to demystify Milk, that is to knock the halo to one side slightly and show a rather calculating, often smug, but passionate man, whose hunger for political success often eroded away his personal life, is entirely and beguilingly successful. You fully believe in Penn and it is quite an astonishing piece of acting. Milk subsequently meets fellow Supervisor Dan White, former police officer and firefighter. White, a politically naive conservative has a complicated and difficult relationship with Milk. White is played by Josh Brolin and, uncannily and eerily, he looks like Dan White. As White, Brolin seethes and twists with resentment and awkwardness, an intense performance that catches the impulsiveness of the man, brooding over Milk's mastery of the media and political zeal. He even manages to evoke some sympathy for the disgraced Supervisor with a performance that does show how brittle the man was in the face of Milk's often overwhelming charisma.

Van Sant's balancing of the political and the personal is astute, if a little tokenistic
As the film hurtles towards its conclusion, Milk is fighting against the Proposition 6 anti-gay legislation foisted upon the states by conservatives John Briggs and Anita Bryant. The Proposition, if passed, would effectively sack any gay teachers or empathetic colleagues from state schools. His relationship with Scott has ended due to his intense commitment to politics and his relationship with Jack Lira, a sweet-natured but unbalanced young man, comes to a shocking end when Lira, paranoid, jealous and angry perhaps about all the attention Harvey is pouring into his political career and colleagues and where there is little time for him, hangs himself. Van Sant's balancing of the political and the personal is astute, if a little tokenistic, but could possibly have had a richer intensity in the film if he hadn't quite paid so much attention to Milk's politics. What personal moments there are, are handled well but I think we could have done with more, redressing the balance slightly. Lira's death is shocking but I was slightly taken aback by this vision of Harvey, denying a period of mourning and getting right back on the campaign trail. It makes Milk appear heartless because there isn't a point later where he does pause for thought about Lira. James Franco is darn sexy as Scott Smith and quite honestly there wasn't enough of him in the film. Scott's story is rather brief, he disappears half way through and only returns towards the conclusion. As Lira, Diega Luna provides a suitably twitchy, claustrophobic performance but one that does grab the audience's sympathies. have got to give them hope
Prior to the actual assassination, I did find the prefiguring by Harvey of his own death by watching a performance of Tosca a bit ridiculous. Its heavy handed symbolism; Tosca is about political torture and killing and suicide with a sadistic twist. The three main protagonists die in quick succession; is not helped by the unintentionally hilarious footage of Catherine Cook's Tosca tumbling off the castle ramparts and restating the opera's theme by having it be the last thing Milk sees through his office window. Yes, Milk did go to see a performance the night before he died and his office was opposite the San Francisco Opera House but Van Sant's use of it seems a bit overwrought. The confrontation between Milk and White, however, and Milk's gunning down is brutal and cold, really dispassionate and all the more upsetting for it. Van Sant avoids mawkishness and just shows the deed as clinically as possible. I also dare anyone not to shed a tear over the candlelit vigil (it's also the moment in Rob Epstein's documentary where I really lose it too) or not get carried away by Harvey's wonderful 'Hope' speech as the film reaches its emotional catharsis at just the right point.

"Two days after I was elected I got a phone call and the voice was quite young. It was from Altoona, Pennsylvania. And the person said "Thanks". And you've got to elect gay people, so that thousand upon thousands like that child know that there is hope for a better world; there is hope for a better tomorrow. Without hope, not only gays, but those who are blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us's: without hope the us's give up. I know that you can't live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you, and you have got to give them hope."
And here in the 21st Century with an African American President in the White House perhaps we've finally got a little bit more of that hope. A terrific film deserving of its awards and critical reception, with a stunning Sean Penn performance and an uplifting, hopeful and uncynical message about the power of personal politics.

MILK (Cert 15. Released January 23rd 2009. Directed by Gus Van Sant)

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5 Responses to “MILK”
  1. Thanks for the review. I hope this film comes to the Gala cinema in Durham some time soon. Fingers crossed!

  2. It's a mesmerising film. Not perfect by any means but very powerful. And Harvey's still got the neo-cons in the Weekly Standard frothing at the mouth so it really is all so relevant.

    I think one the most affecting moments is the end titles when they update you on what happened to all the major players and there is finally a lovely image of Harvey himself, beaming, smiling and laughing. Broke me up.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I loved this film, I was crying in fits continually!
    I was so pleased to see it was nominated for a few Academy Awards, it is so phenomenal on so many levels! It does nothing but beautify the world!

  4. Anonymous says:

    *hands Frank a tissue*

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