Movie Review: Milk
By Matthew Huntley
December 8, 2008

That doesn't look like Milk in those glasses.

I wish I could have met Harvey Milk. What an inspirational man he was, tirelessly fighting for the civil rights of homosexuals and other minorities. In 1977, Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America, and now thanks to Gus Van Sant's Milk, his legacy will be known to a whole new generation. Milk, as he's portrayed in Van Sant's new film, asked the government to let people be themselves and not be judged for it or discriminated against. When you think about it, his wishes were simple and pragmatic.

As the film opens, Van Sant shows us disheartening file photos and news footage of gay bars being raided by police. Homosexual men are piled into police cars and taken off to jail. Shortly thereafter, we learn about the assassination of two men: Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). In 1978, before his assassination, Milk records his memoirs onto an audio tape, foreshadowing his death, and the film heads into flashback.

The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black concentrates mostly on Milk's political career and his relationships around it. It keeps the romanticism of the era at bay and doesn't bother to go into Milk's formative years. In 1970, on the eve of his 40th birthday, Milk meets Scott Smith (James Franco, very effective) in the subway and bluntly asks him to help celebrate his birthday. The two spend the night together and fall in love. Seeking change and a lifestyle outside corporate America, they move to San Francisco, where Milk opens Castro Camera in a growing gay neighborhood, appropriately known as "The Castro."

After encountering prejudice, Milk strives to make a difference in the way gay people are treated. He walks out into the neighborhood with a blow horn and declares his candidacy for city supervisor. Many are surprised and few expect a homosexual man to win a public election, but Milk gains momentum and popularity, and not just from gay men and lesbians, but also from straight people and business owners who realize having the gay community on their side can be beneficial.

After two failed attempts, Milk is finally elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. His greatest victory would be a city ordinance that prevents people from being fired from their jobs on the basis of sexual orientation. Milk also combated Anita Bryant, the conservative Southern Baptist who upheld her strong anti-gay views and successfully repealed a local ordinance in Florida that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (it was later overturned in 1998).

Milk, ostentatious yet calm, used Bryant's outspoken anti-gay remarks as excuses for boycotts and marches against homophobia. In fact, he would tell masses that Anita Bryant helped unify the people of San Francisco. His famous line, "I'm Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you," became associated with taking action against injustice. We witness Milk never being too afraid to speak up, even upon receiving death threats. He'd stick such notes to his refrigerator as a reminder that he was making people notice what he was doing.

One man who noticed was also the man would eventually kill him, Dan White (Josh Brolin). White and Milk did not see eye-to-eye on a number of financial issues, and after White resigns from the Board, Milk encourages the mayor not to give White his job back. On November 27, 1978, White assassinated the mayor and Milk, an act many considered the result of White's poor diet (it would later become known as the "Twinkie Defense").

The subject matter of Milk alone makes it interesting, but it's compelling and effective because it has what any great movie should - exceptional performances, superb production values, well-paced editing, humor, and heavy emotional payoffs. The latter come mostly from observing Milk's heroism and endurance, as well as his romantic relationships to Scott and Jack Lira (Diego Luna). He also built a strong friendship with the young activist Jack Cleves (Emile Hirsch). Black's screenplay and Van Sant's direction give each of the characters ample time for development and the cast works very well together.

When I first learned Sean Penn was playing Harvey Milk, I suspected he might overact (see I Am Sam) and turn Milk's showiness into a cartoon. Penn doesn't remotely play Milk that way. He embodies and creates one of the most likable and genuine characters in the movies this year. There are moments when I can see Penn in the role, but I think that helps because Penn, a well-known liberal, sneaks in his own views that agree with Milk's and the two go hand in hand. In this case, from a political perspective, we have an actor playing what he knows.

The other performances from Luna, Hirsch, and Brolin (who's having another terrific acting year with this and W.) are just as effective, but I think the best performance comes from Franco. Hitherto now, Franco has played roles overshadowed by the leads (Spider-Man), but this year he's worked to become a stronger presence on-screen (Pineapple Express). As Milk's longtime lover and supporter, he generates a complicated, nuanced performance through behavior and facial expressions. He doesn't allow "Scotty" to be pushed aside, which makes the ending all the more poignant.

Using a lot of file footage, along with costumes, makeup and production design, Milk accurately recreates its time and immerses us in the history of 30 years ago. But - and this is important - it works as a film experience because Van Sant makes the story special outside of its historical context. Harvey Milk could have just as easily been a fictional hero and this film still would have been fascinating and emotionally gripping. That's the mark of not only a good biopic, but any movie based on actual events. The question shouldn't be, does it work as a film based on fact, but rather, does it work as a film? A film can be as accurate as it wants, but that doesn't necessarily make it good. It's easy to state facts, but Van Sant, who shows a lot of affection towards the main character and his followers, also makes it entertaining, which is what a film should be before it's anything else.

I did not know much about Harvey Milk before this film came along, and now I want to know more. That's always been the power and draw of the movies - they open our eyes to people and events we might not otherwise have known. In the end, Harvey Milk solemnly expresses on his tape recorder, "You've got to keep giving the people hope. You've got to give them hope." Harvey, you did and this film does.