Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. In 1970, at the age of 40, he had nothing at all to account for his life. By 48, he was the face of a cultural movement. Today he is remembered as having embodied the spirit of the era, and for upholding hope for those who didn’t feel there was any hope left. Now Gus Van Sant’s biopic on Harvey Milk can claim the same. Although it can never match the great heights of the man himself, Milk reminds us how cinema can actually reach out to its audience, and not just touch us, but shake us, to the point that even the next day we can barely think about anything else.
The film takes place between 1970 and 1978, the years in which Harvey rose to power and eventually met his tragic end. Sean Penn stars as the eponymous hero, and we meet him as a closeted 40-year-old man who picks up random partners at the train station. He falls for free spirit Scott Smith (Franco), a kind hearted younger man who eventually becomes the love of his life. The two of them move to San Francisco, and start up a camera store on the now iconic Castro Street. Harvey’s vibrant and welcoming personality draws the homosexual community together, and eventually he’s crowned the King of Castro Street (although he admits it may have been himself who coined the phrase).
Anti-gay sentiment pollutes America, thanks to campaigners like Orange Juice model Anita Bryant (played delectably by … herself, thanks to archive video footage). The violence against the gay community is overwhelming, and all eyes turn to Milk. After several unsuccessful campaigns, Harvey is eventually elected to be a city supervisor, along with the button-down, ultra conservative family man Dan White. Harvey promises to make life better for his constituents. He only served 11 months, but he didn’t lie.
Gus Van Sant is one of the most interesting director’s working today, and you’re unlikely to find an auteur with such a varied filmography. He has made crowd pleasing dramas like Good Will Hunting; documentary style tragedies like Elephant and fractured narrative masterpieces like Paranoid Park. And he also did that weird shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. While Milk is arguably a more conventional film than his previous works, it remains a unique biopic with Van Sant’s fingerprints all over it. 1970’s San Francisco is alive and vibrant, and the characters feel real and warm and funny and barely aware that they are changing history.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is often credited as the saviour of this film. A script entitled The Mayor of Castro Street, written by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) had been in development hell for years, with seemingly no hope of ever reaching the light of day. Black went out and researched Harvey’s life himself, conducting interviews with those close to the man. The final result is now on the big screen, while The Mayor of Castro Street is oddly still slated for a 2009 release according to IMDB. I have a feeling that won’t be happening. Black’s script is an affectionate tribute to Milk, and to a lesser extent, those who joined him in his cause. I’ve read criticism of the film’s supposedly underwritten supporting characters, but I just don’t see it. Maybe the actors are just too talented. Emile Hirsch is fantastic as Milk’s impish supporter Cleve Jones; James Franco is incredible as the heartbroken yet loyal Smith; Josh Brolin plays Dan White like a slightly unhinged, suit-clad ball of intensity, while never turning him into a caricature. As for Diego Luna, who plays one of Harvey’s uncomplicated boyfriends – well, maybe Black could have done a little more work here.
I’ve tried to not spoil the details of Harvey’s tragic end in this review, even though I find it quite difficult to dance around history. The reason I’ve avoided discussing the film’s tragic conclusion (and it’s haunting, Elephant-style execution) is because this film is not about Harvey’s death, but rather his life. The movie poster is quite simply Sean Penn smiling, right into your eyes. As my girlfriend stated every time we walked past it at the cinema, “he just looks so happy.” This is about a happy, good hearted man, who only tries to make other people’s lives better. The film ends with the people of San Francisco flooding Castro Street in a tribute to Harvey Milk. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and not just from a technical standpoint. Harvey repeats throughout the film, “you’ve gotta give ‘em hope.” He did the legwork. The film is just a reminder.