Film review: Milk

Focus Features

STARRING Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, James Franco
WRITTEN BY Dustin Lance Black
PRODUCED BY Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Michael London

SHOT BY Harris Savides
MUSIC BY Danny Elfman
EDITED BY Elliot Graham
DISTRIBUTED BY Universal Pictures

Screened 2008-11-03

“Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”

Harvey Milk was the first openly homosexual man elected to notable public office in America. Is it any coincidence that he was assassinated after one year? The jury that prosecuted Dan White, Milk’s slayer, certainly thought so, though I would say it’s a rather incredible coincidence. 30 years later and for the second time, we revisit the path that led to Harvey’s death to try and make sense of it. This particular interpretation makes generous use of one of Harvey’s pet theories that City Supervisor Dan White was a closet homosexual. This is perhaps quite a license for the filmmakers to take, but then it is their view of Milk’s world. Starting from the beginning, Sean Penn gives us a very heartfelt and lovable performance as the eponymous Milk, now 40 years old and still unsettled. Relocating with boyfriend Scott Smith (Franco) to San Francisco, Milk, a natural politician and smiley extrovert, immediately became a voice for the underprivileged minorities of the city and turned the now notorious Castro district into a compassionate haven for all gays in America. Facing dissent from all quarters, Milk and his lovable band of misfits (Hirsch, Luna, Pill) began a vigorous campaign to have him elected to public office as City Supervisor for his district and it is clearly a testament to Milk’s positivity that it took him five years and as many campaigns to finally achieve his goal. Milk fought for gay rights, and for the rights of any underprivileged minority, at every opportunity, and, now able to see above the impenetrable haze of the lower classes, set his sights on the most powerful and virulent opponents to his cause: outspoken pop singer Anita Bryant (only seen here in existing media footage) and Orange County legislator John Briggs and his dreaded Briggs Initiative (a.k.a. Prop 6) which would’ve fired all California teachers who were openly gay and all faculty members who supported them. The bill represented an embarrassing level of insecurity and ignorance within our government; to Harvey’s rapture was defeated. And with this goliath slain, who would’ve suspected Milk to be defeated by a desperate and frustrated colleague? Former pugilist and firefighter Dan White, played by consummate and successful Brolin, snuck into City Hall, vengeance in tow, to dispute his own resignation from office with the mayor, and for christ’s sake, killed the mayor and Milk. This baffling act of despair silenced Milk forever and White spent five years in prison, then returned to San Francisco (despite the new mayor’s formal request for him not to return – ouch), and a year later committed suicide. The court case that sentenced White, and the rather ridiculous “diminished capacity” defense, were as historically resonant as the rest of Milk’s career. What an absurd legacy for a man like Milk to have left behind – though we’re told he would’ve found it entertaining.

With an academy-award winning documentary chronicling the times of Harvey Milk already behind us, what is the purpose of a fictionalized version of that account? Twofold: in order for Van Sant and young writer Black to have a forum to create a glowing tribute for Milk (i.e. to get it out of their systems), and concurrently to create a sympathetic portrait of the man. The result is sentimental and a bit forced; Milk’s story is already tragic, poignant and timely – I don’t know if it’s really necessary to indulge in Milk’s cute pillow talk or to see him weeping over Puccini to witness his humanity. The wonderful thing about the real Harvey Milk was his irrepressible joie de vivre (which is a wonderful trait for a politician to have, I’ll add); Harvey’s humanity is already abundant. Van Sant is a delicate and caring director who’d wanted this project to come about for some time now, and got his wish in spades: a highly experienced, sizable crew and a large presence of talent. Unfortunately, when his films become too large The Van Sant Experience does tend to get a bit watered-down, and it is that V.S. Experience that we watch him for. Sorry to report that the film offers nothing new, at all, in its script or aesthetics – Milk represents a group of professionals going through the motions (despite these motions being proven successes). Alas. But hey, Milk is a very nice film and a helpful reminder that there is still a moral battle at our doorstep. Personally, when I viewed the film I was struck at my feelings about this debate: that it is so very old and so very clearly over in the minds of intelligent people, as if the hands of the dead were reaching out of the ground to suffocate man’s progress. And if Milk weren’t so sappy I would feel more confident than any sane viewer would feel the same. When the film ends using the same quote that ends the former Milk documentary, one does feel a tickle that reminds us that what we witnessed was more serious than this indulgent fiction.

written by David Ashley